You want to celebrate something, and you’re looking to make a big impression.
Suddenly it hits you: You’ll release balloons. Great idea, right?
Not quite. Public officials are trying to spread the word that intentionally releasing helium balloons can wreak havoc on the environment—and in some places, it’s illegal.
When you release balloons outside, they rise on streams of warm air until they begin to deflate; in many cases, the wind pushes them out over the ocean. By the time they return to the planet, they’re no different from any other piece of litter.
If the balloons land in the ocean, the latex can resemble decomposing fish or jellyfish. That makes them a target for hungry sea turtles, whales, birds, and other animals. Eating the balloons can kill animals—or at the very least make them very sick.
That’s not the only danger, because the strings and ribbons tied to balloons are also problematic. They can become entangled in bird feathers or wrap around the thin necks of turtles, choking them.
This isn’t a new issue, of course, but some events have drawn attention to the environmental dangers of balloons.
The most famous was probably Balloonfest ’86, held in Cleveland as a fundraising effort for the United Way. The event was intended to break the world record for the largest simultaneous launch of balloons; volunteers released 1.5 million helium-filled globes into the sky.
Things went wrong immediately. The balloons were caught in a storm, and as a result, they quickly returned to the ground, impeding traffic, shutting down local airports, and even hampering a Coast Guard rescue attempt.
The good news, in this case, was that the balloons were biodegradable—but many aren’t, and even biodegradable balloons pose serious environmental dangers.
Perhaps the state of Connecticut learned from the disaster.
The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection notes that there’s a state law preventing any person or group from releasing 10 or more helium balloons per day. Nevertheless, the statute is rarely enforced. State officials note that the law is intended as “more of an educational thing than anything.”
“This law was passed to protect wildlife, particularly marine animals that live in Long Island Sound,” the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said in a statement.
“Sea turtles love to eat jellyfish and a balloon, once it deflates and begins floating in Long Island Sound, looks like a jellyfish,” said Kathy Herz, a biologist. “We have found turtles washed up on the shore.”
Now, there’s a major movement among environmentalists to spread the word about the dangers of balloons.
There’s even a popular Instagram account set up specifically to educate the public on the dangers of helium balloons. The account, balloons_blow, posts images of animals that have been endangered by the airborne litter.
“Innocent animals, simply in search of a meal, are often killed or injured from released balloons,” one post on balloons_blow reads.
So, the next time you’re celebrating, consider doing something positive. Plant a tree, scatter some seeds, or simply sing a song. Just don’t reach for the balloons.