Study warns balloons are greater threat to seabirds than plastic straws

A new study reveals that while plastic straws is a killer of marine animals, it’s balloons that are a greater threat, particularly to seabirds.

All of us at one time or another has probably released a balloon into the air and thought nothing of it. After all, it’s just a balloon, it couldn’t possibly kill anything. However, once a balloon loses its air, it falls back to Earth and often can end up in a body of water such as a lake, river or ocean.

And that’s where it becomes deadly to wildlife.

Balloons are a soft plastic that resemble squid, which is preyed upon by birds. When a bird swallows even a little piece of a balloon, it blocks their digestive tract. Such obstructions lead to infections and other complications that cause death.

Dr. Lauren Roman conducted the study for the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania and discovered that birds are 32 times more likely to die by eating a piece of a balloon than by eating a piece of hard plastic like a straw.

“Marine debris ingestion is now a globally recognized threat,” Roman said. “However, the relationship between the amount or type of debris that a seabird ingests and mortality remains poorly understood. Among the birds we studied the leading cause of death was blockage of the gastrointestinal tract, followed by infections or other complications caused by gastrointestinal obstructions.”

“Although soft plastics accounted for just 5 per cent of the items ingested they were responsible for more than 40 per cent of the mortalities,” she continued. “Balloons or balloon fragments were the marine debris most likely to cause mortality, and they killed almost one in five of the seabirds that ingested them. If seabirds eat plastic their risk of mortality increases, and even a single piece can be fatal.”

However, even though hard plastics are less likely to kill, it’s still deadly.

“While hard plastics are less likely to kill than soft plastics they were still responsible for more than half of the seabird deaths identified in our study,” Roman concluded. “The evidence is clear that if we want to stop seabirds from dying from plastic ingestion we need to reduce or remove marine debris from their environment, particularly balloons.”

In short, lets make sure we recycle all plastics instead of casting it in a bin destined to end up as part of the giant floating garbage patch in the ocean. Or better yet, we can refrain from using plastics as much as possible. And we should never again release balloons into the air. As much fun as it is to watch them rise and float away, the possibility of wildlife eating them and dying is too much of a risk to several species and ecosystems. Disposing of balloons and other plastics responsibly would go a long way toward taking care of our feathered friends.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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