Young activists prefer their balloons down-to-earth

September 02, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Lex Latex, the talking balloon, is feeling a little deflated these days.

Sure, kids still squeal with delight when he's twisted into the shape of a poodle.

But release him into the sky and those squeals become howls of protest. Or worse.

In fact, legions of protesting schoolchildren have persuaded four states and a host of municipalities, including Baltimore, to ban the mass release of balloons.

The youngsters, egged on by a pair of crusading biology teachers and a small group of environmentalists, say that wayward balloons can end up

fatally lodged in the gullets of sea turtles, whales and shore birds.

Thus was the Balloon Council born in March, as the balloon industry began to fight back. It quickly hired a public relations firm, installed a toll-free hot line and distributed an earlier scientific report rebutting anti-balloon claims.

Then along came Lex Latex, star of an eight-page, pro-balloon comic book created by Philip Levin, whose company in Harrisburg, Pa., is the nation's third-largest balloon wholesaler.

Add it all up and you get a textbook portrayal of how a grass-roots movement can swirl into a nationwide tempest from the smallest of beginnings.

The whole thing began with two incidents along the beaches of New Jersey. First, in 1985, a whale washed ashore and died. The Marine Mammal Stranding Center found a piece of Mylar foil -- used to make some balloons -- tied to 3 feet of ribbon blocking its intestines.

Two years later, a dead leatherback turtle washed ashore and was found by Peter and Susan Hibbard, high school biology teachers from Toms River, N.J., who do volunteer work for the Stranding Center.

When the Hibbards discovered a latex balloon tied to a nylon string blocking the opening between the turtle's stomach and small intestine, they decided it was time to speak out against balloons. So, armed with the example of the whale and the turtle, they formed Balloon Alert and soon scored their first major victory by persuading the National Science Teachers Association cancel its release of thousands of balloons used to track the nation's wind currents.

It was about then that Atlanta balloon wholesaler Neil Schwartz started "hollering wolf" to the industry, he said, "but nobody would listen to me."

So, the Hibbards moved on, gaining momentum as their crusade spread by word-of-mouth, by mail and, eventually, by television talk show. By the middle of this year, balloon releases had been banned in Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia.

Baltimore got into the act in 1989, when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke issued a moratorium as part of the Clean Up Baltimore program. Howard County schools set a no-balloon-release policy in November 1988.

Big users such as Disney stopped releasing balloons as well, and events such as football games and county fairs began canceling out. The mass release business, which had once put about 60 million balloons into the air per year, dwindled to about 2 million per year. Somewhere along the way, the balloon industry woke up.

"We were laughing in the beginning, but we're not laughing anymore," Mr. Levin said.

One of the Balloon Council's first jobs was to undo the damage of the dead whale and turtle from the Jersey shore. Council spokeswoman Patricia Bario said that Mylar balloons, the kind found in the whale, aren't used in mass releases. Latex balloons released en masse rarely have strings attached, as did the one found in the turtle. Besides, she said, those animals may have died from other causes.

Nor has anyone ever proved that any animal has died from swallowing a balloon from a mass release, Mr. Levin said. The industry also commissioned a scientific report that says that only about 10 percent of balloons in a mass release come back to earth whole.

The rest shatter into small, spaghetti-shaped pieces at high altitudes. The pieces that land decay at about the same rate as an oak leaf, the report says, and even that can safely pass through an animal's digestive system.

But none of that seems to make it any easier going up against riled schoolchildren.

"I've had kids come up to me and actually kick me in the shins and spit on me," Mr. Levin said. "I had one boy scream that I was killing 1 million turtles a year."

For state legislators, such scenes can be daunting, Mr. Schwartz said. "You've got a legislator sitting there, and little Johnny and little Suzy march in and say, 'We don't want you to use balloons because they kill our friends the animals.' Now what do you think that legislator is going to do?"

Still, the balloon industry counterattack seems to be working. Proposed balloon release bans in four other states have been killed during the past few months.

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