While colorful, fun, and a birthday party staple, balloons pose a danger to young children. In fact, the March of Dimes calls balloons “one of the most hazardous toys for children.” It’s no wonder considering that nearly half of all choking-related fatalities reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) between 1990 and 2010 involved balloons. Bits of latex balloon can be swallowed inadvertently, often as the child tries to inflate the balloon. These bits can obstruct a child’s airway, making it impossible to breathe. Because pieces of latex can easily conform to the trachea, it is difficult to expel them with the Heimlich maneuver.
By law, balloons are required to include the following warning on their labels:
- CHOKING HAZARD—Children under 8 years can choke or suffocate on uninflated balloons or broken balloons. Adult supervision required.
- Keep uninflated balloons from children. Discard broken balloons at once.
However, many parents fail to read the fine print, and pre-inflated balloons—such as those distributed at street fairs or festivals—don’t come with warnings.
Balloons need to be handled with care. Here are a few tips to consider:
- Skip the balloons. In its Trouble in Toyland report, the Public Interest Research Group recommends parents “don’t buy balloons for children under 8.”
- Opt for “mylar” balloons. Made from metalized nylon, these balloons are sturdier than latex balloons, easier to inflate (and, therefore, less likely to be inhaled), and less likely to break into small pieces. Mylar balloons are more expensive, but they are safer for children.
- Discard broken balloons immediately. The industry-wide Balloon Council doesn’t recommend that you forgo balloons, but it does recommend that users take care to “discard broken balloons immediately” (especially if you have curious crawlers in your household), “keep uninflated balloons away from children,” and require “adult supervision.”
- Don’t play with water balloons. It’s inevitable—water balloons will break (that’s the point, right?) When balloons pop (especially when they pop in a child’s hands), small pieces of latex can get lodged in a child’s throat.
- Don’t pop balloons. A safer way to deflate a balloon is to make a small cut with scissors near the knotted end of the balloon. This will allow the balloon to deflate slowly (plus, it doesn’t make that alarming popping sound!).
- Get help right away. According to trauma doctor Marty Eichelberger, as quoted in the New York Times, the Heimlich maneuver should only be used if the child’s airway is completely blocked; otherwise, it could backfire, causing the balloon fragments to shift and completely obstruct the child’s throat. If a balloon is accidentally ingested, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.