It's Time for the War on Balloons

Public Domain. Artturi_Mantysaari

Once the party's over, balloons become the leading cause of death for seabirds ingesting marine debris.

I know, I know. Few things say "rain on a parade" as succinctly as the headline "It's time for the war on balloons."

Question: What kind of grumpy bah-humbugging curmudgeon would advocate for depriving the masses of the joy of balloons?

Answer: Anyone who likes birds (and turtles and other marine creatures) and thinks that they deserve to live.

There has already been quite a bit of legislation creating rules for balloons – some are directed towards the havoc they can cause with power lines, others for their lethality to wildlife.

But now research brings new urgency to the problem: Balloons were found to be the number one marine debris risk of death for seabirds, according to the University of Tasmania.

Led by IMAS-CSIRO PhD student Lauren Roman and published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study found while most of the debris ingested by seabirds is hard plastic, it is far less likely to kill than soft plastics such as balloons.

"Although soft plastics accounted for just 5 per cent of the items ingested they were responsible for more than 40 per cent of the mortalities," says Roman. "Balloons or balloon fragments were the marine debris most likely to cause mortality, and they killed almost one in five of the seabirds that ingested them."

"As similar research into plastic ingestion by sea turtles has found, it appears that while hard plastic fragments may pass quickly through the gut, soft plastics are more likely to become compacted and cause fatal obstructions," Roman adds.

Seabirds are the world’s most threatened group of birds, with nearly half of species experiencing population declines, and 28 percent threatened globally, notes the study. Presently, half of the world’s seabird species ingest marine debris.

Is a few hours of party decor or the quick few minutes of a balloon release worth killing birds for? It is estimated that between 45 to 50 million balloons are sold in California alone each year. And it all ends up as trash, often times littering the ocean in snack-size bits that look like food to unwitting creatures.

"Among the birds we studied the leading cause of death was blockage of the gastrointestinal tract, followed by infections or other complications caused by gastrointestinal obstructions," notes Roman, emphasizing that the soft plastic of balloons were more likely to cause these obstructions.

Study co-author Dr. Chris Wilcox says that the research is "a critical step in triggering action to address plastic pollution."

"Marine debris ingestion is now a globally recognized threat," Roman says. "The evidence is clear that if we want to stop seabirds from dying from plastic ingestion we need to reduce or remove marine debris from their environment, particularly balloons."

So there you have it. First we want to take away your pickup trucks and hamburgers (note: not really) and now we want to take away your fireworks, glitter, and balloons. But rather than kvetching and holding on to habits and customs that will turn the planet into a potentially inhospitable place, we should embrace the fact that we have the knowledge to correct our course here. And then celebrate it ... without balloons.