While all marine debris has some potential to harm wildlife, balloons have been identified as among the five “deadliest” types of debris in terms of the risk they pose to marine wildlife. Animals, both marine and terrestrial, can ingest balloons, balloon pieces and ribbons, causing impaction and/or starvation. Ribbons can cause animals to become entangled; preventing flying, swimming or other necessary functions.
Many species of marine wildlife, including the endangered Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) and leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), have been reported to ingest balloons. See the page on Case Studies of marine wildlife for more specific examples.
It is thought that balloons may resemble prey such as squid and jellyfish (see images below). Several peer reviewed studies have reported balloon ingestion and that their resemblance to prey items may be why sea turtle have a high rate of balloon ingestion.
Balloon litter can also have negative impacts on birds as well as animals on land due to ingestion and entanglement. Even on farms and ranches, balloon litter is harmful. See case studies on farm animals and wildlife on land.
Balloon Litter on Virginia’s Remote Beaches: Results of Monitoring from 2013 through 2017.
Trapani, C., O’Hara, K., & Register K. (2018). Clean Virginia Waterways, Longwood University and Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality).
Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife.
Wilcox, C., Mallos, N. J., Leonard, G. H., Rodriguez, A., & Hardesty, B. D. (2016). Marine Policy, 65, 107-114.
To Eat or Not to Eat? Debris Selectivity by Marine Turtles.
Schuyler Q, Hardesty BD, Wilcox C, Townsend K (2012). PLoS ONE 7(7): e40884. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0040884