Backlash weighs down Epilepsy Foundation's balloon launch

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The Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota wants to celebrate its 60th anniversary all across the state. A group is pushing back, calling the foundation's celebration irresponsible. Why?

Balloons.

The Epilepsy Foundation wants to release 60,000 balloons – in recognition of the 60,000 people in the community with epilepsy – from numerous locations throughout Minnesota and North Dakota on May 15. The celebration is called "Rise Above Seizures" – a way to celebrate people with epilepsy, the organization says.

But a number of groups are aggressively urging them to pop the balloon launch plan, citing environmental concerns. One such public comment comes from the group Balloons Blow, a non-profit that provides information on the dangers of balloon releases, especially toward the wildlife and environment.

The group posted the following on Facebook:

Post by Balloons Blow.

The foundation has since responded, providing numerous links on its website's "Environmental Info" page containing information and a study about balloon launches. The site says the balloons are made from "coagulated and dried sap from the Hevea tree, which is a 100% biodegradable material," and decompose at the same rate as an oak leaf. And the cited study found balloon launches aren't very harmful to the environment, if at all.

"The Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota carefully evaluated public awareness event options, and is comfortable with our Rise Above Seizures event on May 15," the site says. "We contacted Minnesota agencies and confirmed that there are no laws/regulations against balloon launches in MN."

It may not be that simple, however.

The St. Cloud Times reports the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has notified the foundation although balloon launches aren't mentioned by name in the law, it could constitute littering.

The paper also spoke with a DNR official, who said the study cited by the foundation is old and not reputable. He added pieces of latex and mylar balloons have been found along Lake Superior's shoreline.

The biggest danger environmental groups cite, according to the St. Cloud Times, is when a balloon breaks apart and falls back to earth – animals can mistake the pieces for food and eat them.

According to Longwood.edu, seven states have laws in effect that deal with balloon releases. Connecticut, Florida and Virginia outright ban the intentional release of floating balloons. The site also lists six cities with balloon legislation.

In 1986, a United Way Balloonfest in Cleveland let a world-record 1.5 million balloons go at the same time, Cleveland.com writes. But shortly after many of them came falling back down, causing multiple accidents and damages. A runway at Burke Lakefront Airport had to be shut down; a horse in a pasture was spooked, and it ended up suffering permanent injuries, resulting in a lawsuit; and the search for two missing boaters – who were found dead in the water – was hampered because balloons blanketed the water, making the Coast Guard's search nearly impossible. The wife of one of the victims sued and settled.

The Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota has made some alterations to its much smaller celebration. They are offering participants the option to launch a virtual balloon online, or suggest participants let a balloon go indoors. The St. Cloud Times says the foundation will also not launch the balloons all at once, as originally planned, but request people release them on their own. No strings will be attached, as that can be a danger to animals, the foundation says.

Says the foundation on its site: "Rise Above Seizures" is now "getting lost in the controversy over biodegradable balloons."

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