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by Abigail Van Buren

Industry Says Balloon Danger to Animals Is Overinflated

DEAR ABBY: I love animals and I am concerned about our environment. I am also a responsible business person deeply involved in the balloon industry. I have served on industry boards and have testified before my state legislators regarding balloons.

I am surprised you printed the letter from "Friend of the Environment." Several years ago this type of balloon story made the headlines across the nation. It pulled at the heartstrings of animal lovers. The information was totally inaccurate and the retraction stories did not make the big headlines; they were buried.

To date, there has been no case of a death of any mammal, fish, reptile or bird that was directly attributed to the ingestion of a latex balloon fragment. Latex balloons are 100 percent biodegradable. They decompose in the environment at about the same rate as an oak leaf decomposes. They are not "colored bits of shriveled plastic," but a product made from natural tree sap.

Research shows that when latex balloons are released, many will rise about five miles and burst into spaghetti-like pieces that return to Earth dispersed over many miles. We do know that animals eat these soft slivers of rubber, but the evidence indicates the pieces pass harmlessly through the animals' digestive systems.

During the 1994 International Beach Cleanup, sponsored by the Center for Marine Conservation, volunteers scoured 5,200 miles of shoreline and found only 36,047 balloon fragments as compared to 1,283,718 cigarette butts and 122,306 plastic foam cups. Overall, balloons accounted for less than 1 percent of all beach litter.

It is unfortunate that someone as influential as you failed to check the validity of the information that was sent to you. Please set the record straight. -- TERRI ADISHIAN, VICE PRESIDENT, BALLOON WHOLESALERS INTERNATIONAL

DEAR MS. ADISHIAN: Although I received many letters from irate members of the balloon industry, I still have reservations about balloon releases. I spoke with Tom Isley, wildlife manager at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who explained that documenting balloon-caused deaths in the wild is difficult because once dead, the animals are quickly eaten by other animals. He mentioned that there ARE cases of animal deaths due to balloon ingestion. A biology professor at St. Cloud University in St. Cloud, Minn., reported that he had examined a female mallard who had swallowed a deflated balloon. Most of the balloon had passed into its gizzard, but the knot didn't and the duck couldn't eat. After drinking a little water, it died.

Another reader, Lisa Hays of St. Louis, also wrote to express concern about balloon releases. Affixed to her letter was a large fragment of pink balloon -- its red ribbon still attached -- she had taken from a bird she had seen pecking at it. And while I'm on the subject of potential hazards, read on for a hair-raiser:

DEAR ABBY: Bravo for printing the letter about balloons. While a friend of mine was driving on a highway one rainy night, he was horrified to see what appeared to be a human head loom up in his headlights. He slammed on his brakes and skidded to a stop beyond where he had seen the figure but felt no impact. Shakily getting out of his car, he saw a balloon floating a few feet above the roadway.

It's obvious what could have happened had my friend skidded off the road, or been rear-ended by a car behind him. -- CATHERINE A. HURLBUTT, DENVER

DEAR READERS: So there you have it. I have no objections to balloons provided they are not released into the environment. How much safer it would be to keep balloons tethered so that following the event, they could be delivered as gifts to nursing homes, hospitals and hospices.

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