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Amendment Goes Over Like A Lead Balloon, But Naturalists Say Even Latex Ones Are Bad

Ally Aubry / Flickr

An otherwise popular piece of legislation saw one of its amendments defeated last week when environmentalists balked at changing rules concerning the release of balloons. It’s a battle over how many balloons are released at one time and what happens to them when they fly away.

State law currently disallows the release of more than ten balloons per person, per day for any reason. Rep. Cary Pigman (R-Avon Park) wanted to up that to 100 for funerals and faith-based services, but when he took the podium to explain his amendment, there was a sense even he didn’t think it would pass, referring to it as "the amendment known as ‘When Pigs Will Fly.’”

And almost as soon as he’d explained it, Pigman’s amendment was derided as being so much hot air and other members of the committee, including Kevin Rader (D-Delray Beach), worked to deflate it.

“By allowing balloons to roam free around the State of Florida, getting into our water supply, getting into our animals, getting into our animals, getting into the environment, getting into the Everglades, getting into estuaries, everywhere – even minimally, it seems like a terrible thing to do,” Rader says.

Environmental group Audubon Florida also opposes the change.

“And this is not to imply that Audubon is opposed to celebrations," says the group's lobbyist, Mary Jean Yon. "It’s just the idea of using balloons – a release of balloons – we’re passed that time. We’ve proven that it’s harmful to the wildlife and to the environment and we do not need to continue that practice.”

Her argument is that balloons find their way to manatee and sea turtle habitats. Sea turtles mistake the balloons for jellyfish, eat the balloons and die when they can’t digest the latex they’re made from.

But Jack Rudloe, who runs the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in the small Wakulla County town of Panacea, says: “There really isn’t good data for that.”

He says he broadly agrees with the premise, but wants more science to back it up.

“But when you start looking at the data, like I just said, at small bits of plastic -- different colors, that type of thing -- going out into the sea, it’s bad news,” he says.

Rudloe keeps sea turtles at his lab, sometimes nursing them back to health. He’s got one now that’s about five years old. It spends its day swimming playfully in a large tank, its shell encrusted with dark green moss, but otherwise healthy.

“He eats horseshoe crabs, conchs, anything else that’s really out there, blue crabs. But if he had a jellyfish in there, he’d be very busy trying to eat the jellyfish.”

Rudloe says all turtles, even those that prefer sea grass to crabs, enjoy jellyfish. So Mary Jean Yon wants to make sure that’s what’s available in the Gulf, and that there’s little confusion for the turtles. But back to the amendment for a minute. It specifies balloon releases for funerals would be granted special permissions.  But are there funeral balloons? Michael Isaacs, the CEO of Brooklyn, New York-based U.S. Balloon Manufacturing Company, says he doesn't get many such requests.

“Absolutely none," Isaacs says.  "I don’t know of a balloon that’s categorized as a funeral balloon.”

Isaacs says he’s seen hundreds of thousands of types of balloons and never heard of someone wanting a funeral balloon.

“I personally have not been on the telephone to handle such a request, nor do I know how my people would have handled such a request, other than to say ‘black is a nice color…’”

So what is Audubon Florida’s Mary Jean Yon worried about? Aren’t the hundreds of balloons accidentally released from, say, the hands of children at Disney World a bigger environmental concern?

“'Intentionally cause to be released' is the language in the statute and so I would argue that those kids don’t intentionally release more than ten at a time,” she says.

But aren’t their hundred balloons that are released accidentally a much greater danger to wildlife than the ten balloons that would be released at a funeral?

“What we’re saying is: do not change this prohibition in the statute to open the door for more allowable uses of large groups of balloons,” Yon says.

Yon says balloons are already a problem, but she concedes it’d be hard to outlaw them altogether. The good news for environmentalists is that the only funeral celebrated last week was that of the balloon amendment.