Balloon History Q & A

When were balloons invented?

Balloons—in one form or another—have been around for centuries. But the modern latex balloon—the kind you can blow up yourself—was invented in New England during the Great Depression.

A chemical engineer, frustrated in his attempts to make inner tubes from this new product—liquid latex—scrawled a cat’s head on a piece of cardboard and dipped it in the latex. When it dried, Neil Tillotson had a “cat balloon,” complete with ears. He made about 2,000 balloons and sold them on the street during Boston’s annual Patriot Day parade.

In the late 1970s, silver metalized balloons were developed for the New York City Ballet. These balloons are commonly called Mylar, but they are actually made from a metalized nylon and are more expensive than latex balloons.

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Where does the latex used in balloons come from?

Latex balloons are produced from the milky sap of the rubber tree, Hevea brasilliensis. The rubber tree originated in the tropical forests of South America and was taken to Europe from Brazil. It is now grown on plantations in many tropical countries. The latex is collected in buckets, as it drips from harmless cuts in the bark. The process is much like that used to collect maple syrup. The use of latex balloons and other products, such as surgical gloves, make rubber trees economically valuable, which discourages people from cutting them down.

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Are latex balloons biodegradable?

Latex is a 100-percent natural substance that breaks down both in sunlight and water. The degradation process begins almost immediately. Oxidation, the “frosting” that makes latex balloons look as if they are losing their color, is one of the first signs of the process. Exposure to sunlight quickens the process, but natural microorganisms attack natural rubber even in the dark.

Research shows that under similar environmental conditions, latex balloons will biodegrade at about the same rate as a leaf from an oak tree. The actual total degradation time will vary depending on the precise conditions.

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What happens to balloons that fly away?

Often latex balloons are released either on purpose or accidentally. Research shows that most of these latex balloons—the ones that are well-tied and have no structural flaws—rise to an altitude of about five miles, where they freeze, breaking into spaghetti-like pieces that scatter as they return to earth. While we do know that animals occasionally eat these soft slivers of rubber, the evidence indicates that pieces ultimately pass through the digestive system without harming the animal.

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What about balloon litter?

Balloons are not a significant littler problem. During a nationwide beach cleanup in 1992, volunteers collected more than 614,433 bottles and cans, but found fewer than 32,000 balloon pieces. These pieces—collected over more than 4,600 miles of shoreline—would fit inside four trash bags.

However, we encourages consumers to dispose of balloons—like all products—properly. We support putting weights on all helium-filled balloons to keep them from floating away accidentally and ask consumers to put deflated balloons in the proper receptacles.

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Are there choking hazards with small children?

It is important that consumers be aware of suffocation hazards to children under eight years old — who may choke or suffocate on uninflated or broken balloons. We recommend:

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