Saturday , 19 October 2019
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A ballooning issue for marine life

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

I have always hated kites and plastic straws, long before I knew how many millions of lives they took. Another phobia of mine is balloons. 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. 500 plus of these had swallowed plastic. Four in 10 of those deaths were 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 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.

If a seabird swallows a balloon, it’s 32 times more likely to die than if it had gulped down a piece of hard plastic, researchers reported in a new study done by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia printed in 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.” 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. Sea turtles are hit hard, as they surface to breathe and eat and 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.

The Sea Turtle Foundation estimates that 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 2 million sea birds die every year from ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris, including indigestible plastic that blocks stomachs. In 2016, the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) named balloon litter as one of the three most harmful items to marine wildlife.

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

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. It is also used in breathing ventilators for infants and the 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. 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, American companies 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 but it is certainly not biodegradable. People who live in the desert have found thousands of them, some over 20 years old. 

The ribbons or string that is sometimes tied to balloons, whether it is “biodegradable” or “ naturally dyed”, will last years and entangles animals that comes in 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. Check out the site ‘Balloons Blow’ to 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. I am surprised that the Environment and Forest Ministry has not moved to stop this industry. But then, they are equally useless at banning fireworks.

Are you as a parent, not concerned about the state of the world? Start by changing the birthday party balloon use. Celebrate with environmentally-friendly alternatives like flowers, coloured lights, colourful streamers, flags and banners, pinwheels with flashy colours or tissue paper pompoms in different colours. Blowing bubbles is always fun. There are companies that create giant bubbles which are a sight to behold.

The documentary ‘Rubber Jellyfish’ by Carly Wilson looks at the effects of released helium balloons on ocean wildlife – in particular, Australia’s population of critically endangered sea turtles.

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. 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 rubbish.

Through the film, Wilson seeks to understand why and how the multi-billion dollar balloon industry has led the public to believe that latex balloons are biodegradable and environmentally friendly, despite massive evidence to the contrary.

Listen to the reports scientists, wildlife rehabilitators and conservationists are filing about the impact 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, that disintegrate when they are wet.  

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