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Ahead of Indy 500 balloon release, IndyStar study looks at environmental impact

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A pre-race tradition will continue this year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While the massive balloon release has been a part of the Indianapolis 500 for several decades, its future might be in jeopardy.

Tracks officials have said the latex balloons released are biodegradable. For the past 11 months, the environmental data reporter at the IndyStar, a news partner of FOX59, looked into the claim.

Since June of last year, Emily Hopkins has kept a pair of balloons in several environments balloons might fall into, once they drop from the sky. They were placed in fresh water, salt water, soil, and compost piles.

"This really originated with reader questions." Hopkins said. "We published a story on environmental impacts of the race and readers really latched on to the balloon release and asked, are these biodegradable? How long does it take them to biodegrade?"

Results of the nearly year-long experiment can be found here.

Hopkins was still able to put air in some balloons. The ones that took the biggest hits were the balloons left with compost. Noticeable holes were found with those and Hopkins said her research found that happened because compost will have bacteria, which will break down the balloon.

"They're made of a material that comes from a plant, when exposed to bacteria, they do degrade unlike a plastic," said Hopkins.

She said she's confident the balloons she tested out were similar to the balloons used at IMS each Memorial Day weekend. While she didn't get confirmation directly from the track, a photo taken by the IndyStar in 2017 shows balloons in the same packaging and from the same brand.

She added the plastic balloons that look like foil are even worse for the environment.

The issue received attention through advertising briefly earlier this year. A billboard near the track read, "BALLOONS POLLUTE AND KILL. #StopLitteringIMS." The billboard was taken down rather quickly.

"It is our plan still to launch balloons as part of pre-race," Doug Boles, president of IMS, said Thursday. "It’s a tradition that’s been here for a while and that’s a plan at the moment."

A group that supports balloon manufacturers, called The Balloon Council, changed its stance on the balloon releases in recent months. Lorna O'Hara, the council's executive director, said a ban of balloons has a negative tone, but after talking to people in the industry, she found they wanted to take a position on the issue so people could continue to enjoy balloons in the future.

"You don't see large-scale releases anymore," O'Hara said. "This is one of the few left and that's why we're talking about this today."

O'Hara referenced the decision at Clemson University to stop using balloon releases at football games. She also said the University of Nebraska's football program has continued with its balloon release with fans.

"If it ends up on the ground and doesn't biodegrade in a reasonable amount of time, it's litter," said O'Hara.

Hopkins said there are other practices recommended for balloon releases. Those include releasing balloons without string or other attached items that could be left in the wild. She said IMS balloons are handtied and are released without anything else tied to them.

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