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  • Writer's pictureCaterina Sullivan

Are Helium Balloons Causing Poverty?

Updated: Nov 3, 2018

Image credit: Andrew Macpherson

It was my birthday a few days ago, and the only thing I didn’t want were helium balloons.

You must be thinking I’m crazy. I mean, what kind of person doesn’t want helium balloons at their birthday?

A few years ago, I would have agreed with you. When I was a kid, helium balloons were the coolest thing out. No party was complete without them. But with age comes wisdom, and I learnt that helium balloons actually weren’t all that and a bag of chips… No matter how squeaky and high-pitched they could make your voice.

One of my mum’s favourite sayings is “what goes around, comes around” which is closely followed by “what goes up, must come down.” And that’s precisely what helium balloons do. They majestically ascend into the sky as a myriad of colours, symbols of freedom… But their return to earth is far from that.

Image credit: Balloons Blow

Yes, this is the bleak outcome of birthday parties.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I care about what happens to the environment, but I definitely wouldn’t refer to myself as an environmentalist. I get way more passionate about justice- and peace-building and empowering people to create better lives for themselves.

So why do I want you to be aware of the helium balloon dilemma?

Well, helium balloons cause poverty!



OK, it may sound like a stretch (pun)… But hear me out, OK Dolly?

Balloons that fall to the earth can look like food for animals.

Dogs, cats, sheep, cows, birds and many more animals mistake balloons for nutrient-rich food. The latex in the balloon, however, is not digestible by many animals. When they eat a balloon, it gets stuck in their digestive tract and causes serious problems.

Terrestrial animals aren’t the only populations which suffer from free-falling balloons. Marine animals also suffer the eventually agonising pain of thinking a balloon is something for them to eat. Balloons can easily look like a jellyfish, a shrimp or fish. Ocean populations around the world are plummeting. The absolute last thing that should be causing these drops are helium balloons that don’t even need to be a part of birthday parties. Use something else to brighten the day!

The world’s population is expected to increase to over 9 billion by 2050, and the demand for food is projected to more than double over that time. The FAO estimates that 70% of fish populations are fully used, overused or in crisis. To continue to feed a growing population, the world needs a growing supply of food. As the need for food goes up, our access to food cannot come down.

Image credit: Hacker Loop

At least The Global Goals have their priorities correct here: Goals 14 and 15 focus on Life Below Water and Life on Land respectively.

So no more letting balloons go into the atmosphere.

If you need more motivation, there’s the issue of helium itself. Here’s a quick rundown:

Fact: Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe. Fact: Helium is relatively rare on earth. Fact: Helium is a finite resource. Fact: Helium production is not keeping up with consumption. Fact: Helium has way more potential than your Alvin the Chipmunk impersonation!

Image credit: Andrew Macpherson

Helium is used in the design of MRI scanners in hospitals and in life-saving medical procedures and diagnostics; helium is even used in breathing ventilators for infants and for people who are ill. We can’t just “use something else” when it runs out. Helium is utterly unique. Its melting and boiling points are the lowest among all of the elements. If we lose access to helium, we may lose access to some of these critical means of providing people with the potential to live a healthy life.

Now, I don’t want to be a party-pooper. actually suggests some great alternatives for making birthday parties fun--or any party for that matter!

The part of this topic that really speaks to me is the absurdity of it. As a child, I never would have thought about the environmental and global impact of the helium balloons at my birthday party. This issue is a great reminder that the products we use without a second thought can not only harm the environment but harm other people by limiting access to food and access to health solutions and, ultimately, undo all the great work global citizens are doing to eradicate poverty.

We heard Nena’s prediction in our favourite German 80s song, 99 Luftballons; let’s not let a seemingly harmless flight of balloons cause massive worldwide devastation--because nobody wins at the end of that.

This article was originally published on the Global Citizen website.


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