Creative Inquiry

The Balloon Release: Pregame Tradition or Wildgame Malnutrition

By Thomas Larrew

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 not well known. A 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 public opinion of the balloon release.

Composition of Latex Sap

Few Clemson students know the history of the pregame balloon release. In the 1983 game against Maryland, more than 360,000 balloons were released to set a new Guinness record. Since then the tradition 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. 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 and labeling to track movements. The balloons traveled a median distance of 23 miles, but a few made it as far as 280 miles (the distance from Clemson to the Atlantic shore is about 250 miles).

The team also found that up to 81 percent of a balloon is left intact and in large pieces. Larger pieces are thought to take longer to degrade and are potentially more dangerous to animals. This outcome leads to the latest study: whether or not animals will eat these balloon fragments and the health consequences. The team is testing quail, red-eared sliders (a type of turtle) and channel catfish. Initially, data shows that all fish, and most quail and turtles consume these pieces, but it appears there are no effects on health. Because this research is ongoing, the data will be analyzed statistically before any of the team’s claims are definitive.

To understand attitudes about the balloon release, the team surveyed people at a football game. Although about 40 percent thought the balloons were harmful, a majority of fans believed Clemson’s pregame balloon release is important to the whole game-day experience.

At this point, it’s tough to say whether these balloons are hurting our environment, but the project team has revealed valuable insights into the situation. We now know that balloons normally degrade pretty well (except in water), and that they have the potential to reach the ocean, though it’s improbable. Animals will consume balloon remnants, but it’s not clear whether the fragments 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 let it fly.

Aha! Moment:

Research will tell us whether drifting, game-day latex balloons are fun for everyone and everything along their paths.