Creative Inquiry

Project Spotlights

The Balloon Release: Pre-Game Tradition or Wild-Game Malnutrition

Cannon blast. Roaring crowds. The team comes dashing down the hill. As this happens, thousands of balloons are released into the air. This scene is familiar to anyone who's attended a Clemson University football game. However, the fate of these latex balloons is something less well known. An interdisciplinary Creative Inquiry team is investigating what happens to these colorful little guys through a four-part project.

The team is conducting studies on the distance traveled by balloons, their rate of degradation, the impact on animals from balloon consumption, and the public opinion of the balloon release. Cyrus Baird, an undergraduate on the team, noted, "The Creative Inquiries are set up so that you can learn in a fun environment: no textbooks, no lectures, real learning with real results you can see, which is why they are so appealing. Easily one of the best decisions I've made in my education career." The faculty advisors for this project come from a range of different backgrounds, including Dr. Stephen Creager and Dr. Melanie Cooper from the chemistry department, Dr. Webb Smathers from the economics department, Dr. William Bowerman from the forestry and natural resources department, and Dr. Stephan Irwin from the school of agriculture, forestry, and environmental sciences.

The pre-game balloon release is an event appreciated school-wide, but few Clemson students actually know the history behind this tradition. In the 1983 game against Maryland, more than 360,000 balloons were released to set a new Guinness record. Since all of the fans loved it so much, the custom has stuck. But is this tradition hurting the environment?

Although the balloons used by Clemson University are 100% biodegradable and, according to balloon companies, should not adversely affect the environment, the team took a closer look at degradation rates in different situations. It's important to remember that this research focused solely on natural latex balloons without any strings, ribbons, or plastic clasps, and the balloons were not tied together. The balloons degraded well in a variety of terrestrial environments, but took considerably longer in aquatic environments, raising concerns about their effects on marine life. To see if the balloons could travel as far as the ocean, the team used a combination of GPS devices to track movements. The balloons traveled a median distance of 23 miles, but two or three made it as far as 280 miles (the distance from Clemson to the shore is about 250 miles).

The team also found that around 80 percent of a balloon is left intact in large pieces after its release. These sizeable pieces are thought to take longer to degrade and are potentially more dangerous to animals. This outcome led to another segment of the study: whether or not animals will eat these balloon fragments and if ingestion has any health consequences. The team tested quail, red-eared sliders (a type of turtle), and channel catfish. Quail and catfish are common species used in risk assessment. After allowing the animals to digest the latex, specific analysis and blood work tests were completed. Overall, there were no blockages or indications of adverse effects in the animals. It's also important to remember that these animals were exposed to higher quantities of latex than typical animals in wildlife - and they remained unharmed.

Finally, the team surveyed two major groups of people. To understand attitudes about the balloon release, the team questioned about 200 people at Clemson football games. About 40 percent thought the balloons were harmful. Still, the majority of fans believed Clemson's pre-game balloon release is important to the whole football game experience. The team then surveyed over 100 federal and state natural resource officials, as well as non-governmental organization members. These included wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, nature education centers, and environmental groups stretching from Virginia to Florida. While these officials believed that balloons were probably harmful, no one had any first-hand experiences to confirm their opinions.

The Creative Inquiry lasted three semesters and consisted of approximately 15 students. Dr. Irwin, the primary faculty adviser for this project, discussed the benefits of working with undergraduates on research. "Many students will go on to grad school. Without mentoring ahead of time, they may have no idea what they are getting into. By advising them in research, they're getting a head start on exactly what they want to do - and when they get to grad school, they're more prepared," he noted.

At this point, while it seems safe to say that balloons are probably not hurting our environment, the team has given us some valuable insight into the previous predicament. We now know that balloons normally degrade fairly well (except in water), and that they have the potential to reach large body of waters, though it's very improbable. It seems animals will consume balloon remnants, but these fragments don't seem to present a long-term danger to wildlife. The final piece of the puzzle will be to present the data honestly and accurately to the fans and the public, and see if they will let it fly.

By: Thomas Larrew (Decipher Issue 1, Fall 2012)