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Issues Of The Environment: UM Student Tracks Balloon Debris, Warns Of Ecological Consequences

Nov 6, 2019

Lara O'Brien

Balloons are typically associated with any celebration, whether it's birthdays, weddings, and so forth.  Yet, releasing balloons into the air can have serious consequences for the environment and wildlife.  University of Michigan graduate student Lara O'Brien is collecting data and researching the impacts and shares her findings with WEMU's David Fair in this week's "Issues of the Environment."


Overview

  • Lara O'Brien, a University of Michigan researcher and master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, has created an interactive online tool to track balloon litter.
  • Balloons released into the sky eventually come down, causing problems in the environment and for wildlife.
  • Mylar (“foil”) balloons are not biodegradable, and latex balloons take years to break down.  Marine birds are prone to dying from ingesting both types of balloons, which get stuck and block the digestive tract.  According to Ballloonsblow.org, cows, dogs, sheep, tortoises, birds, and other animals have also been hurt or killed by balloons.  The animal is usually killed from the balloon blocking its digestive tract, leaving them unable to take in any more nutrients.  It slowly starves to death.  The animals can also become entangled in the balloon and its ribbon making the animal unable to move or eat.
  • Lara suggests alternatives to a balloon release, including blowing bubbles, planting a tree, spreading native wildflower seeds, lighting candles or eco-friendly luminaries, or flying a kite.  She requests that citizens report the locations of balloon debris using her tool: Balloon Debris website

Lara’s Research and Tracking Tool

website, balloondebris.org, which has a link to the web survey, an interactive map of the balloon debris sightings, photos, eco-friendly alternatives, and more information on how the public can get involved.  Since the beginning of June, when she began the survey, research participants have found almost 1,500 pieces of balloon debris around the Great Lakes, including Isle Royale and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. 

O'Brien decided to pursue balloon debris research, because, for years, she has been horrified when groups would gather for graduations, weddings, memorials, and other events, and release balloons as part of the celebration. While these groups have good intentions, every single one of the balloons released will eventually land, littering oceans, lakes, rivers, forests, and other natural areas.  Beyond polluting the environment, these balloons (both mylar and latex) also pose a significant threat to wildlife, which can be injured or killed from ingesting the debris and/or becoming entangled in the long ribbons or strings.

According to a recent study out of the University of Tasmania, balloons are the deadliest form of marine plastic for seabirds and are 32x more likely to kill when ingested than hard plastics. Popped latex balloons are brightly colored, float on the surface of the water, resemble jellyfish, octopus, or squid, and actually give off a chemical smell similar to prey.  So, on every level, latex balloon debris attracts seabirds, turtles, and other wildlife, which will then try to consume them. The soft, malleable latex material will then conform to their digestive tracts, leading to suffocation, starvation, and death.

It is not just marine seabirds and wildlife that are affected.  There have been numerous reports of horses, cattle, and other livestock that have been injured or killed from either ingesting the debris, getting entangled in the ribbons, or running into barbed wire fences after being spooked by the falling litter. 

O'Brien's hope is that by engaging and participating in this citizen science research, more people will become aware of the impact balloons and balloon releases have on the environment and wildlife and that this will lead to changes in behavior (for example, using eco-friendly alternatives like planting trees, lighting candles, or blowing bubbles) and changes in policy.

Five states - California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia - have already passed laws prohibiting the release of balloons. The survey results from this study, along with data collected by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, has already prompted several state representatives from Michigan and Illinois to take action and begin drafting balloon release ban legislation. Hopefully, this will spur other states to do the same. 

About Lara O'Brien

O’Brien is a master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). Focusing on Conservation Ecology and Environmental Informatics, her studies aim to utilize GIS and citizen science to enhance conservation efforts, natural resource management, and public engagement and appreciation of the natural world. 

Additional Resources: 

Why Balloons are Problematic

Balloon are Especially Risky for Marine Birds

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu