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Toss the Graduation Caps, but Not the Metallic Balloons

By Paul Netter
05/15/2023 at 03:20 PM

What goes up often does much more than just come down.

And it’s not always pretty … or safe.

Take metallic balloons, which largely because of graduations and Mother’s Day, are seemingly everywhere in May and June, including the one place they should never be — the sky.

Because when they come down, the balloons litter, endanger animals and, more perilously, lead to public safety threats and power outages when they float into power lines and electrical equipment.

May and June, annually, are rife with this phenomenon, with 26% (100 in May and 110 in June) of Southern California Edison’s 802 balloon-related outages last year, affecting 1.1 million customers, occurring in those months.

One of those incidents, on June 6 in Redondo Beach and Torrance, knocked out traffic signals at multiple intersections, leaving 10,196 customers without power, some for more than nine hours. More precariously, the balloons brought down power lines.

With graduations nearing pre-pandemic, and in-person attendance, SCE urges those celebrating with metallic balloons to never release them outdoors and to always keep them tied to a weight as state law requires.

“For many, metallic balloons appear harmless, but they become very hazardous when released outside,” said Ted Gribble, senior manager of Enterprise Risk Management & Public Safety at SCE. “So, with safety and keeping the lights on our highest priorities, we urge our customers to be responsible by — intentionally or unintentionally — never, ever releasing these balloons outdoors.”

As much as the inoperable traffic signals compromised safety in Redondo Beach and Torrance, a bigger risk occurred when the contact from the highly conductive, metallic balloons led to a downed power line in one area of Torrance and multiple downed lines in another.

Wire-down situations — which happened 96 other times last year because of balloons in SCE’s service area — can potentially lead to severe injuries and even death, as well as fires and property damage. SCE reminds its customers that if they ever see downed lines, do not approach them, stay a safe distance away, and when in a safe place, call 911 to report the emergency.

The most prevalent, nagging problem caused by released metallic balloons, however, remains the disruptive, preventable power outages that cost SCE customers 525 hours of lost power last year. Those hours included, mere days before the Redondo Beach/Torrance outage, an outage on June 1 in Long Beach when 9,496 customers lost power for nearly eight hours overnight when balloons landed in and brought down a power line.

A solution is on the way, however, with the passage and signing last September of California Assembly Bill 847. Though years away, it will partially phase out metallic balloons starting in 2028 before totally banning them in 2031 — mandating that all balloons sold or made for sale in the state be non-electrically conductive foil balloons that look like current metallic balloons minus the safety, fire, and outage risks.

Until the new law takes effect, though, SCE reiterates that balloon owners practice one, simple step.

“The safest metallic balloons are tied to a weight, something sturdy or kept inside,” said Gribble. “The unnecessary risks and outages created by their release are totally preventable with proper precautions.”

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