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Balloons, lanterns really just dangerous ‘flying litter’

07/04/2017, 12:03am EDT
By By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

Markey: If it goes up, it has to come down — and can endanger wildlife


This dead Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle was found on Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia with ribbon coming from its mouth. An exam confirmed a balloon attached to the ribbon was lodged deep in its digestive system. U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SER

OAK HARBOR, Ohio — Despite the best of intentions, the worst of outcomes can follow when balloons or sky lanterns are released into the air and allowed to float away with the wind. If it goes up, it has to come down.

At the least, the objects are litter when they return to the ground. In some cases, the strings and ribbons attached to the balloons entangle birds or other wildlife, and at times the balloon and its adornment will be mistaken for food and ingested, often causing death to the animal.

Sky lanterns go aloft with a burning flame, and at the least the bamboo frame and wire parts are litter when the lantern falls back to the ground.

The wire can be a hazard to animals grazing in pastures, but the flame from a single sky lantern can cause a fire if it lands in dry crop fields, on a shake shingle roof, or in an area where flammable materials are kept.

In 2013, cameras captured a sky lantern landing in a plastics recycling plant in England, causing a huge conflagration that consumed more than 220 million pounds of recycling materials and did more than $8 million in damage.

The first time Tiffanie Hayes walked the beach along Lake Erie near here specifically to search for balloon or sky lantern debris, she was stunned at what she found. 

In just a quarter-mile stretch, 28 Mylar balloons and some additional latex balloons had washed ashore there after floating out over the lake, then dropping into the water where the waves carried them to the beach.

“It was incredible, the number of these balloons that ended up on the beach, with ribbons and strings dangling from them,” the Oak Harbor resident said. “The litter aspect is one thing, and the danger these things present to birds and other wildlife just makes them even more of a problem.”

Hayes said some communities will have a balloon or sky lantern release as part of their Fourth of July celebration, while other times the lanterns are used in memorial ceremonies for lost loved ones. The lanterns and balloons also are used in festivals and at college football games or other sporting events.

Less than two weeks ago, the city of Toledo had to awkwardly pull the plug on the scheduled release of 250 latex helium-filled balloons at a “family-friendly” event at International Park, because of environmental concerns and the litter aspect. The colorful balloons were intended to signify “serenity, peace, and commitment.”

“Regardless of the situation, even it if is a celebration or a grief-related ceremony, those balloons or sky lanterns are not going where people hope they go,” Hayes said. “We have to change the mindset and get everyone to understand the fact these things are litter, and a very dangerous form of litter.”

About the Fourth of July in 2016, a sky lantern is thought to have started a fire that spread to four homes in the Detroit area community of Highland Park. One home was destroyed by the blaze.

A sky lantern also was a prime suspect in a fire that did extensive damage to a plastics recycling plant in North Baltimore, Ohio, in 2014, with fireworks also a possible cause. The pallet yard caught fire, and several nearby homes also were damaged.

“If a person stood in a park and tossed plastic grocery bags into the air, they’d be cited for littering. Would it make a difference if we filled them with helium — or lit them on fire — of course not,” said Kim Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. “Balloon and lantern releases are somehow viewed differently because they’re more pleasant to look at in the first few moments after release. But what happens next is that balloons and lanterns return to Earth as ugly, dangerous litter.”

Balloons and lanterns foul beaches and get tangled in farm equipment and electrical wires, besides the threat they pose to birds, marine mammals, and livestock.

Kaufman explained when birds and other wildlife get entangled in the ribbons or ingest parts of the devices, it leads to a slow and agonizing death. She said the BSBO Conservation Committee is working to educate the public, community leaders, and elected officials about the dangers associated with balloon and sky lantern releases.

“It’s time to ban these practices,” she said.

Frank Szollosi, a former Toledo councilman who monitors the Great Lakes region for the National Wildlife Federation, said helium balloons and sky lanterns can travel hundreds or thousands of miles before plunging into farms, rivers, lakes, ponds, parks, habitat, and backyards. He added these objects, despite some of them being labeled as “biodegradable,” do not harmlessly disappear.

“There are already too many ways that humans stress wildlife — balloon and lantern releases needlessly add to the burdens we place on them,” Szollosi said.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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