Glendale bans Mylar balloons, deflating hopes of some local business owners

A Mylar balloon caught on a power pole.
The city of Glendale has banned the sale of Mylar balloons because of their role in causing power outages. (San Diego Gas & Electric)

It’s been a hard year for fun.

First, the coronavirus canceled all the parties. Trick-or-treating is strongly discouraged for fear it could become a real-life super-spreading horror show.

Now, 2020 is coming for the ultimate symbol of celebration and childhood joy: balloons.

Mylar, or foil, balloons — the metallic, shimmery ones — are increasingly being scorned as nuisances for their role in causing power outages.

Glendale, a city of about 200,000, banned the sale and distribution of Mylar balloons on Tuesday, making it one of the first cities in California to take the action. Hermosa Beach passed a similar ban that took effect in June. Malibu banned the sale of all balloons last year.

Glendale City Councilwoman Paula Devine said she voted for the ban “because of the hazards imposed on our electrical system, because of the possibility of fires, the explosions, our linemen who have to repair [it], and it’s a very dangerous job."

The deflated balloons, which can land anywhere after floating high in the air, are bad for the environment, she added.

Violating the new ordinance is punishable by either a fine or jail time of up to 180 days. The ordinance does not outlaw possession of the balloons, so a resident could legally buy some in a neighboring city and bring them home.

The sale of Mylar balloons filled with air, not helium, and attached to a pole or other structure will still be permitted in Glendale. Latex balloons are not included in the ban.

Often emblazoned with messages such as “Happy Birthday,” Mylar balloons are made of a conductive material that can cause sparking and even explosions when tangled in power lines, according to Glendale Water & Power officials.

A California law, passed in 1990, prohibits the release of Mylar balloons into the air and requires them to be weighted down when sold. That has not prevented numerous balloons from finding their way into the sky and getting entangled with power lines.

Since 2007, 168 power outages have been caused by the balloons in Glendale, according to a GWP report. That equates to about 19% of outages in the city and 223,000 hours of service interruption, the report said.

Last month, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power blamed a Mylar balloon for leaving 2,500 residents without power in the Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, West Adams and Mid-City neighborhoods.

But those in the balloon industry, including event decorators and party supply distributors, fear the bans will be the last straw for businesses already devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With big events such as weddings and graduations on hold, those selling and decorating with balloons are already teetering on the edge, says Amanda Armstrong, owner of Top Hat Balloon Werks in Mission Viejo.

Armstrong laid off her sole employee as sales slowed, and she has no idea what’s next for the business she founded more than 20 years ago. Foil balloons make up half of her inventory and fetch a much higher price than their latex counterparts, she said.

“It would be devastating to have to lose that business on top of having to deal with COVID as well," she said, adding that many balloon businesses are owned by women.

Lorna O’Hara, executive director of the Balloon Council, an industry group, said that education about the dangers of releasing balloons is key, not bans that can destroy people’s livelihoods.

“It's not the product that's the culprit. It's people's behavior,” O’Hara said.

Glendale officials see the ban as a precedent-setting move for other cities.

Nearby cities, such as Burbank and Pasadena, “are watching,” Devine said.

That’s exactly what Armstrong expects — and fears.

“Everybody is going to start jumping on the bandwagon and eyeballing a ban,” Armstrong said. “Then, you know, we can’t do Los Angeles. Or we can't do any of the counties around Los Angeles. We won't be able to service those areas, which is what we need to do.”

Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) authored a law, approved in 2018, requiring manufacturers to print warnings about contact with power lines directly onto the balloons.

For the last year, he has been trying to get utility companies and the balloon industry to come together on a bill to address balloon-related power outages.

“There are still a lot of questions to be answered, and I hope we find those answers in time to introduce a bill in 2021,” Quirk said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.