What started as a joyful celebration ended in tragedy for one Portland, Oregon, family when an 8-year-old girl fell asleep with a Mylar balloon from her father’s birthday party on Wednesday of last week. When the family went to check on her later that night, they found that she had suffocated on the balloon, and now they want other people to know what they didn’t: These types of balloons aren’t safe for kids.
The Portland family was celebrating the 8-year-old’s father’s birthday, and like many birthday parties, balloons were included in the decorations. Specifically Mylar balloons — the shiny metallic ones that come in all kinds of shapes, from Elmo to every letter of the alphabet.
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The little girl was playing with a large balloon from the party earlier in the day and was supposed to have been upstairs asleep that evening. Her grandmother, Pat McGloghlon, was at the house that evening and described hearing a commotion upstairs and panicked calls to contact 911.
The source of that commotion was the 8-year-old’s father, who found the girl in her bed with the deflated Mylar balloon over her head. He cut it off and performed CPR until the paramedics got to the home. When they did, they attempted to revive the second-grader for an hour but were ultimately unsuccessful.
Mylar balloons are made of NASA-developed nylon and coated in a metallic finish, which makes them more durable. It’s part of the reason that they’ve been recommended as a “safer” alternative to latex balloons for babies and toddlers. Latex can be easily bitten and popped, and balloons made out of it pose a choking hazard when shreds of the popped balloons become lodged in a baby’s airway. The fact that even some babyproofing sites recommend them in place of latex at a celebration is part of the reason parents have no idea that they come with their own set of hazards. This little girl’s parents had no idea she was in any potential danger, in part due to the perception of safety Mylar offers and in part due to the fact that by the time a child turns 8, they’re essentially in the clear as far as any balloons go, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
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But in fact, Mylar balloons pose risks of their own. In this case, the family told KATU2 that they can only guess at what happened. The balloons come with different-size fill holes, and it would appear the 8-year-old opened one to suck out the helium — it’s possible that while she was doing that, she managed to get it stuck on her head and suffocate.
Usually sucking the helium out of a party balloon is a totally benign stunt. You pinch the balloon’s opening, suck in some of the gas and practice your Minnie Mouse impression. But once you start increasing the amount of helium and the size of the balloon, you could be in danger, because what you’re doing is actually depriving your brain of oxygen. Bigger balloons typically have bigger openings, which increases the risk of asphyxiation. More helium means you’re more likely to get lightheaded and confused, something an 8-year-old can’t gauge very well.
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Besides that, Mylar balloons are not biodegradable and pose a different risk when they’re released. Their metallic coating is extremely conductive, so when the balloons become tangled in power lines, they can cause large power outages. Releasing Mylar balloons doesn’t just pose electricity risks; they’re a huge blight on beaches since they don’t decay. Taken all together, these types of balloons aren’t necessarily less dangerous so much as they are risky in different ways.
There’s no reason to ban balloons from parties, particularly with older kids. But it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on little ones around latex balloons (or skip it if you feel the risk is too great) and to make sure that deflating and properly disposing of all balloons become a part of your post-party routine.
As for the Portland family, they don’t just want people to be aware of the potential dangers Mylar balloons hold; they want people to do what they now won’t be able to:
“Everybody just hug their kids and tell them you love them,” McGloghlon told KATU2.
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