It started off innocently enough. The Cleveland, Ohio United Way decided they wanted to do a fundraiser. They wanted it to be spectacular. Record breaking, even. One for the books.
They decided that they would stage a balloon release to the tune of 2 million latex orbs, and that they’d get people to sponsor them, 50 cents per balloon. The event was called Balloonfest ’86. It was expected to raise a lot of money for United Way.
This spectacular publicity stunt took 6 months to prepare for. A mesh net was created that would cover an entire city block. The structure to hold said net was 3 stories high. On the day of the event, 2,500 volunteers sat under the net, filling the balloons with helium. At the rate of 2 balloons per minute per person, it would take a little less than 7 hours to reach their target. Most of them had blisters and severe hand cramps afterward. But, hey, it was for a good cause.
Having environmental concerns? Yeah, me too. But the United Way assuaged fears of that by explaining that these balloons were made of “biodegradable latex.” They’d degrade naturally, no muss, no fuss.
In perfect conditions, helium balloons rise up into the atmosphere, continually expanding, until they finally pop and return gently to earth. Unfortunately, according to this article, they return to earth in the form of unsightly litter, and are often mistaken for food by animals, which can cause numerous health problems. And latex does degrade, but it can take 4 years to do so. And the latex in balloons is often treated with ammonia, tetramethyl thiuram disulfide plus zinc oxide, and a plasticizer. And it shouldn’t be overlooked that helium is a limited resource that is needed in the medical field.
So even if things had gone well, the result would have been a disaster for the environment. Oh, but things did not go well. Not even a little bit.
First of all, they didn’t take the weather into account. On this late September day, mother nature wasn’t feeling the least bit cooperative. A rainstorm was headed right toward Cleveland, and it had organizers very worried. So, worried, in fact, that they decided to release the balloons early, meaning that many spectators missed it. And they were only able to release 1.5 million balloons instead of the intended 2 million.
And instead of benignly rising ever upward, these balloons instead hit this weather system and went downward, still inflated. Days later, balloons were washing up on the Canadian shores of Lake Erie. Traffic accidents were reported because the balloons covered a highway, blocking all visibility. One airport had to shut down a runway for a half hour. Many balloons descended upon a pasture in Medina County, Ohio, spooking a herd of very expensive Arabian horses, and causing permanent injuries.
But perhaps the most tragic result was that two fishermen on Lake Erie had been reported missing, but the Coast Guard helicopter couldn’t search due to all the balloons in the air. And the search by boat was futile as well, because it was impossible to distinguish a head bobbing above the water amongst the thousands of balloons that were also floating on the lake’s surface. The fisherman were only found later, once their bodies washed up on shore.
A fisherman’s wife sued United Way and the city of Cleveland, as did the owner of the Arabian horses. Needless to say, rather than raising money, the United Way lost quite a bit, financially and reputationally, on this public relations nightmare. But at least, due to this debacle, the Guinness Book of World Records has since stopped measuring “environmentally unsound events”.
One for the books? Mission accomplished.
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