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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The offical end of summer is approaching. Labor Day has come and gone. For many folks, the long weekend meant a chance for one last walk along the beach. One such walk got Living On Earth's reporter John Rudolph to thinking. He sent us this reporters' notebook from the island of Martha's Vineyard.


CURWOOD: The Fall Equinox is approaching. Labor Day has come and gone. And for many folks the long weekend meant a chance for one last walk along the beach--one that took a bizarre twist for Living on Earth's John Rudolph, and he sent us this reporter's notebook from the island of Martha's Vineyard.

(Gull calls)

RUDOLPH: I found something unnerving among the usual flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the shore of Martha's Vineyard: balloons. Hundreds of balloons in all shapes, sizes, and colors. One afternoon on a mile-long stretch bordering the Atlantic Ocean, I collected more than 80 balloons in the surf and sand. I thought that would be the end of it, but a few days later my daughter Maya joined me on another beach expedition. Once again, the shore was littered with balloons. We stuffed our collection into a big plastic box that had also washed up.

(Footfalls in sand)

MAYA: This one says Class of ‘97. This one is in the shape of an American Flag. Um, this ribbon says Congratulations, so I think it's from a graduation.

RUDOLPH: Here's a balloon that has an American Flag pattern on it, and --

MAYA: I remember where I found that.

RUDOLPH: You do?

MAYA: It was in the water with a whole bunch of other balloons, and I swam out. We were just leaving the beach, and I think I had my clothes on, and I swam out and got them and put them in the bag.

RUDOLPH: No one knows for sure where all these balloons came from. Probably a combination of wind and tides brought them to this particular stretch of beach. Chances are they were released at happy occasions, parties or county fairs. A balloon floating through the air is such a joyful and innocent sight. But when it's deflated and lying on the beach, well, that's another story. I showed my discovery to my friend Jonathan. He's a rabbi and good at seeing the big picture.

JONATHAN: Well you know, when you think of balloons, you think of the hot air balloon, which is a beautiful sight. But that seems to me something that's used over and over again. But a balloon just seems--someone's instant satisfaction. It's there and you see it go away, like sending a rocket up into the sky. But then it's gone and it turns into garbage. (Laughs) Just turns into garbage.

RUDOLPH: There are people who get paid to think about the impact balloons have on the environment. And not surprisingly, the experts disagree. The Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, DC, says animals like sea turtles ingest balloons, sometimes leading to starvation and death. Seven states actually have laws that prohibit or restrict balloon releases for environmental and public safety reasons. On the other hand, the Balloon Council, a group representing balloon manufacturers, says there's no evidence that balloons kill sea mammals. A spokeswoman for the group called reports of these kinds of deaths a sort of urban myth. Well, myth or not, this beach on Martha's Vineyard was strewn with balloons. And even if no animals died it reminds me that every act of man has consequences, even the innocent release of a brightly-colored gas-filled balloon. I was also forced to acknowledge that as the world becomes more crowded, the likelihood increases that my actions will affect someone else. Sort of like stepping on a stranger's toe in a packed elevator.

I try to be conscious of this as I go about my daily routine. It's not always easy. But one thing is certain. The next time I get my hands on a balloon, I'm going to make sure it's tied down securely. For Living on Earth, I'm John Rudolph.

(Music up and under)

RUDOLPH: What you got there?

MAYA: Another balloon. (Splashes in the water) Come on, let's go see sand castles!



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