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What Goes Up Must Come Down

Good intentions bring unintended consequences

Veterinarians conduct surgery on Kermit to remove ingested balloons from the turtle.

Balloons were fresh on my mind when the Heart Healthy Foundation sent the press release announcing a balloon release to kick off Heart Health Month.
    The Annapolis-based foundation was releasing 200 heart-shaped balloons spaced at 33 second intervals. That’s how often an American dies from heart-related diseases.
    A few weeks earlier, I’d written about balloons in a very different context: as killers of sea turtles. (Read the story at
    Kermit, a green sea turtle found wasting away because his throat was blocked by balloons and plastic bags, had inspired students to stuff turtle effigies as warnings that turtles and balloons don’t mix. The artists collected errant balloons from beaches where their trash turtles would be displayed.
    Concerned about the Heart Health Foundation’s event, I emailed the foundation and Sen. John Astle, who was attending, attaching my article and explaining my worries.
    The senator’s office replied with a note from John Martin — an Anne Arundel County physician and co-director from Dare to C.A.R.E — saying he had been attentive to environmental concerns about balloon releases; and a report that justified it.
    The report had been written by the National Association of Balloon Artists, an association with the goal of selling balloons. I was skeptical, so I did a little digging of my own.
    Balloons can indeed float 28,000 feet into the atmosphere where they freeze and shatter before falling back to earth. Others lose too much helium to make that five-mile trip and settle wherever the wind takes them.
    Balloon enthusiasts argue the small percentage of balloons that make it back to land biodegrade at the rate of an oak leaf.
    Sounds good — at first.
    Do you know how long it takes an oak leaf to break down? Six months to several years depending on the conditions where it lands, according to Bay Gardener, Dr. Frank Gouin. Plenty of time for creatures to make balloons their last supper.
    Just how small a percentage return to earth in one piece? In the 2011 International Coastal Clean Up, 93,913 balloons were gathered. That’s in only one day.
    Thirty percent of sea turtles have eaten balloons, according to the Public Library of Science, an open access, peer-reviewed scientific journal.
    I’m not a balloon hater. Balloons make great party decorations and can add color to any event. But releasing balloons into the sky isn’t a good use of inflated, dyed latex. Ask Kermit or the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team that rescued him.
    If you want color, keep your balloons tethered or weighted. If you want attention, blow bubbles. Fly kites. Wear your heart on your T-shirt. Run through Lawyer’s Mall in your bathing suit. When there are other options, why kill Kermit?