Reconsider Balloons

A letter to the editor from a reader and a message from our electric utility company this week reminded us that balloon season is once again upon us — and that does not bode well for wildlife, or for power lines, it turns out. 

That marine animals are at risk as helium balloons loose their lift and end up in the water is well known. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, seabirds, marine turtles, and fish can mistake them for food. Few balloons, even those marketed as biodegradable, go away when they hit the water; many persist for months and years as they divide into smaller and smaller pieces. Photographs on the website Balloons Blow illustrate the grim toll, including several stricken Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, a threatened species that visits our waters in summer and fall.

Other wild creatures can also become entangled in tough balloon strings, with strangulation or starvation a possible result. In some beach sweeps here, balloon strings have been the single most found foreign objects, a testament to their persistence. Some municipalities, in places that host many weddings and sports events, have banned them altogether, eager to do something positive for the planet. Environmental groups encourage weights to keep children’s balloons on the ground when their little hands inevitably let go. But it’s not just kids.

One person we know told us about finding a massive Holy Communion balloon conglomeration along the shore at Rocky Point in Montauk the other day. Popping them with a broken clamshell, she gathered it all up and took it with her as she headed back up the trail.

PSEG-Long Island’s advice to customers was a bit more prosaic. Metallic Mylar balloons, which conduct electricity, can cause short circuits if they get into power lines, with outages, fires, and injuries among the possible results. If you are curious, there are plenty of videos online illustrating how this can happen, often with astonishing outcomes. The utility urged that balloons be securely tethered or weighted and that they be punctured before being disposed of, lest they float away.

A pet theory here is that the balloons found on South Fork beaches are a problem created, as with many others, by people from away. That might be so, given the prevailing west-to-east wind during the outdoor gathering season, but all of us would do well to be more careful when helium balloons are around — or forgo them entirely.