Balloon releases pose risk to wildlife, environment

2010-09-13T06:00:00Z 2010-09-13T11:13:28Z Balloon releases pose risk to wildlife, environmentEnvironmentally Challenged: By Brian Troutman The Times and Democrat

According to a report found on the website of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there have been 100 balloons pulled from the coastal waters of South Carolina so far this year. This number is miniscule in comparison to states like Virginia and California where several thousand balloons have been reported as polluting the coastline.

It is for that reason that a handful of states including but not limited to California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, New York, Texas and Virginia have recently passed legislation restricting the release of balloons not used in scientific experiment.

Balloon releases are fun to participate in and fun to watch, but at some point balloons fall and become litter.

According to Sarah Lyles of Palmetto Pride (South Carolina's anti-litter organization) there haven't been many reports of balloons littering inland areas of South Carolina, but the organization is aware of the potential.

"We don't have an official stance on balloon releases, but we believe that they eventually fall down to the ground and become litter," Lyles said.

Balloon releases are commonly conducted with a latex party/decorating balloon that is biodegradable. So one might ponder what all the fuss is about.

Latex is biodegradable, but in testing, latex balloons have taken six months or longer to decompose.

Also, when an overinflated balloon does not reach a high enough altitude to explode or has a tassel that keeps it from reaching said altitude, it eventually floats to ground or water.

Then, the trouble starts.

The most common restriction from states that have passed legislation on balloon releases is that tassels or ribbons not be attached to the balloons. Others restrict the total number of balloons that can be released to an average of 50.

Inflated balloons that make their way back to earth or water pose a risk for wildlife due to their probability of becoming ingested due to attractive color or their ribbons and tassels forming the perfect trap for animals to become entangled.

According to Clean Virginia Waterways, an organization that operates out of Longwood University in Farmville, Va., an infant sperm whale was killed in 1985 as a result of ingesting an inflated balloon that had not decomposed.

Sheridan Elementary School in Orangeburg recently released 600 balloons at a community event. Unfortunately, most had tassels or ribbons.

I share this not to bash anyone's actions but to raise awareness. While state environmental and anti-litter officials have said that balloons have yet to become a huge topic of environmental concern in South Carolina, we aren't exactly clear of posing a threat to wildlife and ecosystems.

While the EPA does not have any national regulation on balloon releases. EPA press officer Tisha Petteway says that all balloon releases, not just those in states with regulations, should be conducted with the protection of the environment in mind.

"People planning on balloon releases should consider the potential environmental impacts, such as potentially contributing to marine debris," Petteway said.

Marine debris is a big concern for the EPA. What balloons don't fall inland will usually fall in the ocean. Then, they run the potential of adding to an already large problem 100 miles or so off the coast -- the North Atlantic Garbage Patch.

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