House panel weighing balloon-release ban

Debris can imperil wildlife that mistake it for food

March 04, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

They are a familiar sight at car dealerships: helium balloons bobbing from strings tied to mirrors and windshield wipers.

David Wendkos' Hyundai dealership on West Street in Annapolis is no exception.

But Wendkos, whose employees go through scores of balloons every week, plans to testify today in support of legislation that would make the release of more than 20 balloons an offense comparable to littering.

"At the end of the day, we pop them with razor blades and dispose of the balloon," said Wendkos. "In my mind, if you stick a balloon - popped or whole - in the water, an animal is going to try to taste it. Let 10 or 20 balloons go and you have essentially assured that you'll kill an animal. I can't go home at night thinking I've done that."

Today, the House Judiciary Committee will consider the "Inky bill," named for the pygmy sperm whale rescued off the coast of New Jersey and treated at the National Aquarium in Baltimore in 1993. Marine surgeons removed three square feet of plastic from one of her stomachs, including a Mylar balloon.

"Public awareness is the important thing here, because in our coastal bays and all over the coast of Maryland, marine animals are there with the potential to be hurt by debris," said the bill's sponsor, Democratic Del. Barbara Frush, who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. Her bill would make mass balloon release a crime and subject violators to fines of up to $500.

Five other states and seaside communities including Ocean City, Md., and Suffolk County, N.Y., have outlawed group balloon releases.

The tradition of celebrating with balloons runs deep.

In Willow River, Minn., orphans at a grief camp release balloons and light candles as part of their ceremonial activities each summer. To celebrate the year 2000, organizers released 15,000 balloons in New York City's Times Square. And balloon releases were used to mourn members of the Dawson family killed two years ago in East Baltimore and to remember victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Last spring, pupils at a Wisconsin grade school included letters inside latex balloons used in a wind-current experiment. A fisherman found one of their balloons in Delaware Bay and sent it to the National Aquarium, where it landed in the hands of ocean health programs manager David Schofield.

"People don't realize that this stuff eventually comes down, usually in pieces, and those pieces can be mistaken for food in the marine environment," said Schofield.

Naturalists say more than 265 species of marine animals, including seagulls, pelicans, sea turtles, fish, whales and dolphins, can mistake balloon remnants for jellyfish and other food. Once eaten, latex and Mylar can cause intestinal blockages, shutting off digestion and leading to emaciation, dehydration and death.

Officials at the aquarium asked Frush to introduce the bill, lending the delegate a copy of a short videotape about Inky. The documentary, frequently shown in schools nationwide, shows the whale's six-month recovery and her release into the Atlantic Ocean.

Honey Bischoff, one of more than 700 students and animal lovers who have flooded Frush's mailbox in support of the bill, was moved by Inky's plight.

"The video that I watched in class almost made me cry," Bischoff wrote.

Proponents hope the legislation raises public awareness about balloon debris the way education campaigns a decade ago taught consumers about the dangers plastic six-pack rings pose to marine life.

Balloon manufacturers and sellers, who typically oppose such legislation, say balloon debris has never been definitively linked to wildlife deaths.

Schofield said the bill isn't intended to blame the industry. "It's the user," he said, "not the manufacturers of balloons, who are hurting animals when they let them go."

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