Bursting the bubble – why balloons and Chinese lanterns are party poopers

Spare a thought for all creatures great and small before launching any balloons skywards

It takes a ‘biodegradable’ latex balloon five years to break down when it lands in the sea.  Five long years, during which time it can be eaten by a dolphin or a sea turtle, or tangle round the legs of a shearwater, puffin, or merganser.

It is also a fallacy that helium balloons burst into hundreds of tiny pieces.  Over 80% of balloons recovered from the sea and coastlines worldwide were at least partially intact and resembled nothing so much as a squid. Which is why sea creatures eat them.

When this happens, the balloon either becomes jammed in the throat of the creature, causing the dolphin or turtle to choke and drown, or they get stuck in the oesophagus or the gut, causing them to slowly starve to death.  

On the other hand, the long trailing ribbons and strings are the main hazards for diving birds. Because Latex floats, the balloons remain on the surface and frequently get tangled around birds’ legs, hindering them from hunting or swimming properly and again condemning them to death by starvation or drowning.

The Marine Conservation Society, which surveys rubbish collected during its beach clean ups, found that balloon debris had increased by 56% between 2014 and 2016, which is not good news for our struggling blue planet.

Another point is that Helium is a finite natural resource with vital medical applications, including cooling the magnets in MRI scanners and helping premature babies to breathe, and is also essential for the gas mix used by deep sea divers. Ironically, helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen, and  the solar wind that pours off the sun is full of it, but this helium never reaches Earth and our supply of it is limited.

It is a by-product of the petrochemical industry, as pockets of it are released by oil drilling, but there is only limited amount available and it is already becoming scarce.  So is it really responsible to use what's left to fill party balloons?

If balloons are a danger at sea, Chinese lanterns, also known as fire balloons are a veritable menace over land. They cause fires when they land on hay stacks, thatched roofs and arable fields, and if they land in pasture, cows are likely to eat them. Vets believe they are attracted by the shiny foil and they die a painful death when the wire frame punctures their stomach lining.

Chinese lanterns that land in the sea pose the same risks as helium balloons do to sea creatures who ingest the rubberised foil or becoming tangled in their rigging.

Even assuming that none of these things happen, when the balloons or lanterns return to Earth they are basically litter, with all the same risks to wildlife and the environment posed by other litter, and with the same clean-up costs for the authorities and volunteers who struggle to keep the countryside clean.

At the end of the day, while balloons or lanterns look pretty going up, the results are far from pretty when they come down.