The Problem with Birthday Balloons No One Talks About

If you think that balloons are just a bit of harmless fun, think again. Find out the serious risks they pose to kids and the environment.

Chances are, balloons make you smile. How could they not? They’re bright and cheerful, and we’ve come to associate them with happy occasions like kids’ birthday parties and graduations. In our post-pandemic world, they’ve become even more popular, since in-person celebrations have been put on hold but we still want to do something to celebrate life’s big moments. While decorating with a bunch of balloons may seem like a safe way to have a little socially distanced fun during the pandemic, it’s actually imbued with other dangers.

Balloons—like that other bright and cheerful childhood accouterment, glitter—are increasingly under fire for the multiple hazards they present to the environment, to wildlife, and to our own health. In fact, several states and a number of cities have already banned the mass release of balloons, and legislation is pending elsewhere. Below, we outline the top concerns doctors and scientists cite regarding these helium-filled orbs and suggest a few alternatives for your next happy get-together.

Hard on the ears

Sure, balloons are a pleasing eyeful. But anyone who’s ever spent time with a crowd of children also knows that a big part of their appeal for the under-12 set is the loud noise they make when you pop them. As it happens, that noise, known as an impulse noise and characterized by “a sudden burst of high-intensity energy,” can reach 168 decibels, according to a report in Canadian Audiologist. That’s five decibels higher than a 12-gauge shotgun—and more than enough to result in permanent hearing loss, especially in the very young, who have sensitive eardrums. These noises “have the potential to create large waves in the basilar membrane of the inner ear causing damage to the delicate hair cells.”

Additionally, while the authors were unable to look into the cumulative effects of balloon-popping on kids (for the obvious ethical issues involved in conducting such a study), they did make an appeal to treat this issue more seriously. “Noise is cumulative in the same way that sun exposure is,” they explain, “and we need to be thinking of noise exposure in our society like we now think of sun exposure.” Find out more about hearing loss, which is on the rise and striking people at younger ages.

Asphyxiation danger

Sucking in helium to get a giddy, cartoon-like voice isn’t the joyful prank we’d like to believe it is, either. As Healthline points out, when you inhale helium, you displace oxygen, and “anytime you don’t get enough of it, you’re putting yourself at risk.” Of what, you ask? Dizziness on the mild side of the harm equation, and passing out on the more serious end. The latter would warrant a trip to the emergency room to make sure you haven’t sustained any lasting damage.

Medical professionals caution that the effects of helium on the body are similar to what happens when a scuba diver comes up for air too quickly: A stroke is sometimes caused when a gas bubble gets into the bloodstream through a tear in a blood vessel, which blocks blood flow to the brain. Experts say the greatest danger of this happening comes from inhaling helium directly from a pressurized tank, but to be on the safe side, why not just eschew the practice—and the balloons—altogether?

A dwindling resource

Helium, the second most abundant element in the universe, may be bad for the human body, but it has an important place in our society. Unfortunately, according to EcoWatch, it also happens to be a “finite and rapidly dwindling resource.” As prices begin to skyrocket for helium due to a decrease in availability, much worthier recipients than balloon aficionados are paying more for a critical and sometimes lifesaving component. Helium is an essential element in MRI scans that doctors use to diagnose and treat patients, in the production of computer chips, and in the oxygen tanks of deep-sea divers conducting underwater scientific research.

An abundance of litter

“People put them out as decoration and they almost always get away,” Virginia Rettig of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey told Pew Charitable Trusts in 2019. “When you are out on the beach or marsh, it’s litter.” And the effects of balloon litter go far beyond blighting the landscape. Like plastic litter, which breaks down slowly into microparticles that never quite seem to disappear, natural latex balloons—which are touted as being eco-friendly because they’re made of rubber—actually take years to degrade, too. That’s because “they are mixed with plasticizers and other chemical additives that hinder the biodegradation process,” according to EcoWatch. Another kind of latex balloon, which is made from a petroleum derivative called neoprene (also found in scuba-diving wet suits) “will remain in the environment indefinitely, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces over time.”

Fatal to wildlife

What happens to balloons and bits of balloons that get into our waterways and landfills? They wreak havoc on birds, turtles, mammals, and more. In fact, as a peer-reviewed paper in Scientific Reports found last year, “balloons or balloon fragments were the marine debris most likely to cause mortality [in seabirds], and they killed almost one in five of the seabirds that ingested them.” Balloons were also found to cause compactions and fatal obstructions in sea turtles, while other research indicates that pretty much any animal in the wild is prone to mistaking balloons—which don’t just turn up in marine ecosystems but often also get snagged on trees and wires—for food, “[leading] to loss of nutrition, internal injury, starvation, and death,” according to NOAA.

Mylar—more to hate

Potentially even worse than latex balloons for the environment—although it’s a toss-up—are Mylar, or foil, balloons. These never biodegrade, and they are just as likely to be consumed by wildlife as their latex cousins; turtles mistake them for their favorite food, jellyfish. They are also responsible for a staggering number of power outages: 1,128 in 2018 in Southern California alone, according to the Los Angeles Daily News, which reports that “the metal coating on Mylar balloons conducts electricity. When the helium-filled balloons are set aloft, they can cause a short circuit, a power outage, or a power surge when they contact power lines.”

Balloon ribbons are also a problem

Released balloons can travel for thousands of miles to carry out their destruction far from where they originated. But it’s not just the helium-filled shells that pose threats to the environment. Ribbons that tie them closed can ensnare and entangle wildlife, which can be fatal. In fact, balloon ribbons and strings rank just behind discarded fishing lines and plastic bags in the entanglement risk they pose to marine life, according to research from the Ocean Conservancy. A report commissioned on behalf of the state of Virginia found that “string, ribbon, or other material can wrap around fins, flippers, and limbs—leading to starvation, infection, amputation, or drowning.”

Balloon alternatives

Many organizations have devised lists of festive alternatives to balloons. The Environmental Nature Center, for example, suggests blowing bubbles or flying kites, cheering with paper pompoms or by banging drums, and planting trees and flowers in instances where you want to memorialize someone or something. The University of Michigan proposes waving flags or banners, lighting candles, organizing a community bike ride or even—tackling the whole balloon problem head-on—putting together a trail or river cleanup. In addition to forgoing balloons, try these 20 tiny everyday changes you can make to help the environment.

Sources:

  • National Geographic: “To Save the Oceans, Should You Give Up Glitter?”
  • Clean Virginia Waterways: “Legislation regulating the release of balloons”
  • Canadian Audiologist: “Did You Know How Loud Balloons Can Be?”
  • Healthline: “Inhaling Helium: Harmless Fun or Health Hazard?”
  • NBC News: “Oregon teenager dies after inhaling helium at party”
  • EcoWatch: “Balloon Releases Have Deadly Consequences – We’re Helping Citizen Scientists Map Them”
  • BBC News: “Helium shortage: ‘Prices just keep going up and up'”
  • Pew Trusts: “Helium Balloons! So Festive. So Awful for the Environment.”
  • Scientific Reports: “A quantitative analysis linking seabird mortality and marine debris ingestion”
  • NOAA: “What Goes Up, Must Come Down!”
  • Los Angeles Daily News: “You are now entering Mylar season, if you’re not careful, prepare for power outages, fires”
  • Marine Policy: “Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife”
  • Environmental Nature Center: “Balloons Pose a Risk to Wildlife & the Environment”
  • University of Michigan: “The Environmental Impact of Balloon Releases and Suggestions for Eco-Friendly Alternatives”

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Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.