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Editorial: Deflating balloon releases

When I was in Summit Hill on Memorial Day for services and the annual parade, I passed a home where about a dozen family members had gathered to release balloons to commemorate the loss of a family member in combat. As the dozen red-white-and-blue balloons drifted into the sky, I thought to myself that this was a moving tribute to a loved one, but where are the balloons going to wind up?

Imagine my surprise when I learned several days later that state Rep. Matthew Dowling, R-Fayette, has been thinking the same thing and has introduced a bill that would ban balloon releases, which have become routine for such things as birthday parties and anniversary observances, gender reveal events and, as in the case of the Summit Hill family, memorial tributes.

Dowling said he was motivated to introduce the legislation to protect the state’s wildlife and livestock as well as the denizens of the deep because sealife have been known to swallow these balloons and die.

The bill (House Bill 2614) would result in fines of up to $100 for violators who release 10 or more balloons. The bill has been assigned to the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee whose chair is Greg Metcalfe, R-Butler.

Among the 20 co-sponsors are four from our area - Mike Schlossberg and Jeanne McNeill, both D-Lehigh; Maureen Madden, D-Monroe; and Milou Mackenzie, R-Lehigh and Northampton.

“While balloon releases may feel like a moving way to remember a loved one or celebrate a special occasion, we need to think about where those balloons end up,” said Dowling in his statement accompanying the introduction of the legislation. “They sometimes travel many miles from where they were released and end up in farm fields or waterways where they are mistaken as food and in many documented cases have resulted in animal deaths,” he added.

“It’s time we all recognize the dangers posed by balloon releases and look for alternative ways to celebrate or remember a loved one,” Dowling said.

A leading animal rights proponent, Kristen Tullo, Pennsylvania state director for the Humane Society of the United States, applauded the introduction of this legislation. “Balloon litter is detrimental to Pennsylvania’s environment and causes immense pain and suffering to animals who mistake deflated or burst balloon pieces for food or get entangled in their strings,” Tullo said.

My research shows that balloons don’t decompose quickly, and their strings usually aren’t made of biodegradable material. Even biodegradable versions can take as long as four years to decompose.

Although there is a growing concern about balloon releases, many are still not aware of the adverse environmental impacts these seemingly well-meaning individuals and groups are causing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that wildlife can confuse the small, brightly colored pieces of a balloon with food: “These balloons that are launched don’t just go away; they either get snagged on something such as tree branches or electrical wires, deflate and make their way back down, or rise until they pop and fall back to Earth, where they can create a lot of problems. Many balloons that are not properly disposed of end up in the ocean and along shores becoming marine debris. Balloons can be mistaken for food, and if eaten and ingested, balloons and other marine debris can lead to loss of nutrition, internal injury, starvation and death. String or ribbon that is often found attached to balloons can cause entanglement. String can wrap around marine life causing injury, illness and suffocation.”

There’s a movement toward eliminating or reducing single-use plastics. New Jersey, for example, now has a new law banning the distribution of plastic bags in stores and other retail establishments. Plastic pollution remains one of our most significant environmental challenges, especially since microplastics have been found in our food and drinking water and even in the air we breathe. In the efforts to reduce the single-use plastic glut, balloons are often overlooked.

The two most common types of balloons are mylar and latex. Mylar balloons also cause thousands of power outages annually when they come in contact with power lines or circuit breakers.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.