'Biodegradable' balloons may be posing serious threats to marine wildlife, time to let air out of the industry

Maneka Gandhi
The deadliest ocean garbage for seabirds is balloons. In a small survey done on one coast, 1,700 dead seabirds were picked up. Over 500 of these birds had swallowed plastic, with 40 percent of those deaths caused by balloons

My mind and body have, instinctively, always had the right feelings towards things that are harmful for the planet €" it is almost as if my relationship with nature is so profound that we think as one. I have always hated kites and plastic straws, for instance, long before I knew how many millions of lives they took.

Another phobia of mine is balloons. My family knows that I will not touch one and will not enter a space that has them. People who release pigeons and balloons at rallies have my undying hatred because the pigeons will die and the balloons will kill. Fortunately, because we have been so vociferous about bird releases at ceremonies, it is no longer done. Now, we need to stop the balloons as well.

The deadliest ocean garbage for seabirds is balloons. In a small survey done on one coast, 1,700 dead seabirds were picked up. Over 500 of these birds had swallowed plastic, with 40 percent of those deaths caused by balloons.

Seabirds frequently snap up floating litter because it looks like food. When pieces of latex or mylar are mistaken for food and ingested, they lodge in the digestive tract, inhibiting the animal's ability to eat and causing a slow and painful death by starvation. Birds, turtles and other animals commonly mistake balloons for food. In addition, many animals can become entangled in balloon strings, which can strangle them or cut their limbs.

A balloon floats to a high altitude where it bursts. The burst pattern makes it look like a jellyfish. It then comes down, is washed into the ocean and is swallowed by predators like dolphins, whales and sea turtles.

If a seabird swallows a balloon, it is 32 times more likely to die than if it had gulped down a piece of hard plastic, researchers reported in a new investigation done by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia, printed in mega journal Scientific Reports. "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," a report reads.

Birds are especially likely to swallow balloons because they closely resemble squid. Sea turtles, among other wildlife, eat shrivelled or exploded rubber balloons because they look like jellyfish. When they surface to breathe, sea turtles commonly eat balloons. Scientists doing necropsies on turtles that washed ashore dead have often found the necks of latex balloons blocking the entrance to the small intestine from the stomach, and four feet of attached ribbon in the intestine. In July 2018, a handful of boats held a competition on picking up balloons in the ocean. In one day, over 600 balloons were collected.

The Sea Turtle Foundation estimates that 1,00,000 marine mammals and turtles and two million seabirds die every year from ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris, including indigestible plastic that blocks stomachs. In 2016, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) named balloon litter as one of the three most harmful items for marine wildlife.

Balloons are made of latex, mylar or foil and fall to the ground as litter. They are as harmful as cigarette butts and plastic bags. The ones that are pumped with helium travel thousands of miles and their pieces are found in the remotest places, like wildlife refuges, where they pollute the earth. For example, more than a hundred balloons were recently collected at the Edwin Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey at a single cleanup on one beach.

Petrels swallow shrivelled up balloons and die. On any beach in the world, you can pick up at least 10-15 balloons every day.

To use helium in balloons should be made a crime punishable by life imprisonment. Helium is a finite gas and should not be wasted on fripperies. Helium is used as a shield gas for non-ferrous welding and for cooling the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners. There is no substitute for it, due to helium's low boiling point. It is also used in breathing ventilators for infants and patients. In 1996, Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson issued a warning that supplies of helium are being used at an unimaginable rate and could be gone within twenty years. Because of balloons?

According to the US-based Consumer Product Safety Commission, balloons are linked to more infant fatalities than any other child product, and death by helium inhalation consistently takes lives each year. Balloon companies say that latex, or rubber balloons, degrade. They give different names to the balloon €" Qualatex, for instance. This is not true. There are no safe balloons. They degrade in decades and are eaten long before that.

While conservationists all over the world are asking for an end to balloons, the companies in America have predictably got together and have created the Balloon Council to fight any laws that restrict the buying and release of balloons. They are reinventing their selling techniques by calling themselves biodegradable. This nonsense, that they use "natural" latex so it is biodegradable, does not hold, because the latex has had chemicals, plasticisers and artificial dyes added to it. It may degrade eventually, as even rocks do, but it is certainly not biodegradable. People who live in the deserts have found thousands of them, some over 20 years old.

The ribbons, or the string that is sometimes tied to balloons, whether it is "biodegradable" or "naturally dyed", will last years and entangles animals that come into contact with it. The balloon industry claims that when a balloon pops, it bursts into many little pieces, and that the pieces land far away from each other. How does that matter? Each piece is a time bomb.

People see balloons as an uplifting thing. Going to the skies and the heavens. They don't reach heaven €" but this flying trash makes thousands of animals and birds reach it before their time. Look at the site Balloons Blow so that you can see pictures of the lakhs of creatures killed by balloons.

Birthday parties, weddings, graduations, sport events, political party jamborees €" all these are now mass balloon littering events. It is time to make them illegal. They are pointless, useless, and an anachronism that nobody will miss if they were gone. I am surprised that the environment and forest ministry has not moved to stop this industry. But then, it has been equally ineffective in banning fireworks.

Are you, as a parent, not concerned about the state of the world? Start by changing the birthday party balloon use. Have fun, celebrate with environment-friendly alternatives. You want to have things that make your parties memorable and happy? Flowers are the best way. Coloured lights, colourful streamers, flags and banners save money and time. Pinwheels, with flashy colours fluttering in the wind, attract attention. Tissue paper pom-poms in different colours are pretty. Blowing bubbles is always fun: watching them bounce around towards the sky and twist with the wind like rainbow butterflies. There are companies that create giant bubbles which are a sight to behold. Chinese paper lanterns are not an environment-friendly alternative. Sky lanterns have started huge fires.

Rubber Jellyfish by Carly Wilson, a documentary about the effects of released helium balloons on ocean wildlife €" in particular, Australia's population of critically endangered sea turtles, is a film that should be shown in every school. Carly Wilson discovers that helium balloons, that are often released ceremoniously, usually land in the ocean. She examines the phenomenon that causes balloons to mimic the appearance of jellyfish, a prey that all sea turtles eat, when they rupture high in the earth's atmosphere. She meets several turtles suffering from the excruciatingly painful and often fatal "float syndrome", which is caused by the ingestion of balloons and other ocean waste.

Through the film, Carly seeks to understand why and how the multibillion-dollar balloon industry has led the public to believe that latex balloons are biodegradable and environment-friendly, despite massive evidence to the contrary. She meets marine biologists, turtle activists, representatives of the balloon industry and policy makers, to question why Australia has not taken action against mass balloon releases, when its waters host all six sea turtles on the CITES endangered species list.

Listen to the reports that scientists, wildlife rehabilitators and conservationists are filing about the impacts balloons have on animals and the environment. Stop using them. Or invent edible, organic, biodegradable balloons made of unwaxed paper, or straw or even soya, which disintegrate when they are wet.

Also See: G20 Summit: Ministers agree on new framework to tackle plastic pollution in oceans

People eat and breath roughly 320 particles of microplastic a day: New analysis

Air pollution kills one lakh Indian children aged under five every year, accounts for 12.5% of total deaths in country, finds CSE study

Read more on India by Firstpost.