Old balloons causing woes for wildlife, despite law

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
July 5, 2008

It’s a familiar memory of childhood summers: gazing straight upward, tearfully or joyfully, as a helium balloon soars into the sky.

Unfortunately, those latex balloons don’t fly up to the heavens and simply disappear. They deflate and fall back to earth, where they can become a real problem for wildlife.

That’s why a group of students from Turkey Hill School in Orange lobbied state lawmakers nearly 20 years ago to ban the mass release of lighter-than-air balloons. Their efforts paid off when a state law was passed in 1990 making it illegal to let off 10 or more balloons at a time.

But with many Connecticut residents, organizations and officials unaware of the law, people continue to let loose the balloons, sometimes in larger than allowed amounts.

Members of the Menunkatuck Audubon Society – the local branch of the national environmental organization – and state Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, recently became concerned after noticing the release of dozens of balloons at the start of the Branford Road Race June 15.

The balloons can pose a danger to wildlife in various ways, according to the Audubon Society. Marine animals can mistake them for jellyfish and hence, dinner. Birds often use the balloons and attached ribbons to build their nests, leading the animals or their young to become entangled and die.

“Animals get ensnared in them and the animals that consume them, they block the digestive track and what happens is the animal stops eating because it feels as if it’s full and it will starve to death,” said Suzanne Botta Sullivan, president of the Menunkatuck Audubon Society. “It can, over the course of the balloon’s life, have a detrimental effect to any number of animals.”

Botta Sullivan said she thinks that many people don’t know about the dangers or the state law against releasing balloons.

“It looks festive, but a lot of things look festive and it doesn’t make it OK,” she said. “We need people to be mindful of the kind of consequences that come from their actions, and I think that towns and organizations need to be very mindful of the kind of message that they’re putting out when they don’t do things that are in compliance with the law.”

Meyer said he thinks state officials and environmental activists can do more to educate the public about balloons and the law against releasing them. He added that he plans to ask the state Department of Public Safety to remind state police about the state law.

“This is a law that’s not well known – indeed, I didn’t know about it,” he said. “I think we need to draw people’s attention to the law and we need to remind law enforcement to enforce it.”

Some police officials in Greater New Haven said they were aware of the law, while others expressed a lack of knowledge.

Guilford Police Chief Thomas Terribile said he remembered the law passing, but he could not recall any times when there has been a need to enforce it in Guilford.

“I can’t remember anybody making a complaint about (releasing balloons),” Terribile said. “I don’t think anybody ever did in Guilford, to tell you the truth. You usually see it at big sporting events.”

Similarly, North Branford Deputy Police Chief Michael Doody said he has not heard any concerns about releasing balloons in town. He added that he thinks it would be appropriate to issue people warnings before handing out tickets for violating the balloon law.

“A lot of people aren’t aware that some of these laws are out there and a warning the first time would probably suffice, and then if they do it again then that’s where you have to issue the ticket,” he said. “Our job is to try to make them aware just as much as it is to enforce the law.”

Meyer said he does not think the General Assembly needs to change the existing law, which he called “reasonable.” He added that law enforcement will not be able to address many of the situations where balloons are intentionally or accidentally released – children letting go of a balloon’s string, for example – but it can focus on large-scale releases at organized events.

“Having 12 small grandchildren, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to stop that at their birthday parties, but we certainly can try to deter the larger release of balloons at things like town and city events,” he said.

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