By Debbie Miller Marschke
As an avid desert enthusiast and wildlife volunteer I roam the roads less traveled and cross country hike through wilderness zones frequently. My “wilderness experience” continues to be negatively impacted by the sight of the countless mylar balloons that I encounter tangled up within the desert vegetation. They are easy to spot because of their bright colors and reflective materials. I am sure that their journey had innocuous beginnings, an accent of happiness at a past celebration much farther away. In fact, many of them are purposely released for the simple joy of watching them float skyward until the balloon disappears from view – never to been seen (or thought of) again. However, balloons released into the atmosphere quickly transform from a source of pleasure into a source of death. What goes up, will come down - once the helium dissipates and gravity pulls them back to the earth. Once earthbound, they quickly become entangled in brush. An attention grabber, with a pop of bright color to entice animals to investigate a potential source of nourishment, balloons can be mistaken for high quality forage.
For years, biologists have made the grim discovery revealed during necropsies of this silent menace populating the desertscapes. Mylar and latex balloons are quiet killers; once ingested, they can become a blockage in the digestive tract which will eventually contribute to the cause of death of the animal. The brightly colored ribbons secured to the balloons become serrated knives, lacerating delicate tissues and the esophagus. The animals suffer from injuries caused by the ingestion of balloons and ribbons, which ultimately can cause starvation, choking, blockage, stress, and ultimately, death. Latex balloons are touted to be “biodegradable” but they really are not as far as the wildlife is concerned. Depending on the manufacturer, studies demonstrate that it can take between four to sixteen years for the material to begin breakdown in the environment. Once it breaks down, it is still a form of microplastic. Additionally, latex is laced with harmful chemicals like ammonia and tetramethyl thiuram disulfide (used as a fungicide and preservative). CDFW wildlife biologist Jeff Villepique is intimately aware that this is negatively impacting the desert bighorn sheep populations because he’s discovered the evidence first hand in the field. It is not an anomaly, and it has been repeated during bighorn mortality investigations for decades. During a single necropsy, he’s removed enough balloons from one of the chambers of a bighorn’s stomach to fill a plastic bag. Obviously, free floating balloons are silently wreaking havoc and causing unnecessary suffering to the desert fauna. They are indiscriminately killing a full spectrum of animals, from bighorn sheep to desert tortoises. The balloons arrive with the prevailing winds like the seeds of dandelions, possibly from hundreds of miles away, raining down as a single “Happy Birthday” declaration or a Mother’s Day death cloud.
On May 11, 2017, the California legislature first introduced Assembly bill AB – 1091, addressing the willful release of any balloon that is constructed of electrically conductive material. Legislation has continued but it has not been effective. Violation of penal code 653.1 is considered an infraction punishable by a fine not to exceed $100.00, with repeated offenses considered a misdemeanor. In 1990 the California State Legislature passed SB 1990, also known as “The Balloon Law,” enacted in an effort to reduce power outages due to mylar or foil balloons. There will be no more public events where mylar balloons are released en masse. Albeit a nice effort, this toothless law looks good on paper but it has done nothing to discourage the general public from buying and ultimately releasing the mylar menaces. Latex balloons, the more lethal of the two, are not even addressed in the California legislature. The harm that a latex balloon causes to marine and bird life has been more widely publicized than the harm caused to terrestrial creatures. There really has not been much study or news coverage concerning the California deserts, though everyone who recreates there has regularly encountered the stray balloons. Furthermore, the focus of publicity is more broad scope, generalized as “pollution.” Perhaps it’s easier for the public to wrap their heads around the problem when they learn about harm caused to sea turtles or dolphins because those species command more broadcast time and wildlife coverage than the Bighorns or tortoises do. The Bighorns don’t have a high profile champion like Steve Irwin or Jacques Cousteau, and it’s unlikely that Disney has a Southwestern desert tale in the hopper. The key solution for this issue is continuing to educate the public. There is a 501(C) non-profit organization, Balloons Blow Inc. (balloonsblow.org), whose singular focus is to educate on the topic; however, unless one is actually searching the Internet for information about balloons and the impact on wildlife, it’s not high profile. The environmentalist organizations are battling the multi-million dollar balloon industry. There are organizations out there that specifically address the issue periodically in their publications. The most accurate and pertinent publication was published by CFG biologist Rebecca Barboza, which was first posted in Outdoor California magazine January – February 2010. California Wild Sheep Foundation has that article archived and accessible on the Internet: http://cawsf.org/Floating_Menace.pdf . It’s an important read and deserves your time.
So it is up to us, as stewards of the desert, to take a stand. More than twenty years ago, I stepped up my game. Anytime I see trash, garbage, or discarded beverage cans littering the deserts, I am repulsed and offended. I pick up what I can, but I simply can’t pick up everything I encounter due to the sheer volume. However, I can promise to recover every single balloon (and ribbons) I see. I made a vow to collect every balloon that I can safely harvest, and it’s become personal with me. It’s an attainable goal that I can continue for my lifetime. I’ve found up to thirteen separate and individual balloons in a day, and the most prized recovery was a human-sized mylar stork. It just takes a minute to grab them up, and they stuff easily in a daypack. I also seek to educate those who travel with me about the environmental damage these party favors cause to our beloved wildlife. Please consider integrating this cause into your next desert adventures, whether it involve casual recreation or a structured hunt; start harvesting balloons. ~ Deb