Balloon Release that Killed People

The year was 1986.  I was only a mere 10 year old little girl. Some grown-ups in Cleveland, Ohio thought it was a brilliant idea to release 1.5 million balloons to raise funds for the United Way of Cleveland, calling it BalloonFest ‘86. In addition to raising money for charity, BalloonFest ‘86 was giving the city of Cleveland a lot of publicity since 1.5 million balloons would be the world record at the time.

If you follow this blog, most likely you are environmentally-minded and can predict that this would be a total DISASTER. Amazingly most people in Cleveland did not see the impending doom. Cleveland Police and Firefighters signed off on this project. 2,500 high school students signed up to volunteer to inflate balloons. This means teachers, principals, school administrators and parents all thought Balloonfest ‘86 posed no threat to society and even had their students participate in this. Where did they think that 1.5 million balloons would go? Mars? The ocean? Canada? 

Our consumer society has programmed us to never question where our products go after we do not need them anymore. A landfill looks cleverly like a  grassy hill to the untrained eye. However if you look closer at the landfill  you will notice that the sides are perfect 45 degree angles. There is not a tree in sight, as trees cannot grow from trash .  It’s easy to assume that trash that we put out to the curb just vanished, instead of being that really large treeless hill right off the highway. We over-consume simply because we think we can just throw away things we do not need, and it will disappear. 

The organizers of Balloonfest ‘86 did not give a second thought to what would happen to balloons after they were released. When the  1.5 Billion balloons were released, it casted a shadow over the city. If you looked up it looked like a colorful cloud, but within minutes, what went up had to come down. Visibility to cars driving nearby all the sudden was reduced, causing several minor car accidents.  The nearby airport had to suspend flights for 30 minutes because of the lack of visibility. The worst was the high percentage of the balloons landed on Lake Erie. Yes, I am sure the wildlife suffered, like they always do from balloons. An estimated 100,000 wildlife a year either die or get hurt from balloon pollution. In this case it was more than the wildlife that got hurt. Two boaters lost visibility and toppled over.  A search team tried to rescue them, but had to call the search off because of the loss of visibility.  The boater’s bodies were later found. The general public, and the wife of one the boaters, contributed the deaths to Balloonfest ‘86. 

You might be thinking this disaster is only because 1.5 million balloons are released at the same time, but actually one balloon is a problem. Balloons are commonly made of latex, so the balloon industry likes to promote them as biodegradable. This is a bit misleading, since it can take up to 4 years for a balloon to biodegrade. Four years is enough time for a single balloon to entangle wildlife. Balloons do not biodegrade like food, which only takes a few days to break down.. The fragments of a broken balloon can look like food for a hungry bird or marine animal. Balloons are often inflated with helium. Helium is a rare and finite resource needed in medicine. Liquid Helium is used in medical instruments like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). MRIs are used in brain scans. 

Balloons are cheap, come in fun colors and float, so they have become a popular item at birthday parties and other celebrations, but where did your last balloon that you use go? Is it in a bird’s stomach? Was misuse of helium another reason that health costs are on the rise? Next time you celebrate, stick to paper streamers and signs.  I promise you will have just as fun.

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