Combine laughing gas and a few strips of shapely foil and you get a local issue inflated to scandal proportion between the California state Senate and small businesses which sell Mylar balloons.
But this is no laughing matter.
The bill to ban the sale of helium-filled, metallic balloons in California, labeled Senate Bill 1499, was created because of the role loose Mylar balloons have played in hundreds of power outages throughout the state. Senate Bill 1499 has floated easily through the Assembly Business and Professions Committee and is on its way to the Appropriations Committee for approval later this summer before grounding itself on the California Assembly floor.
Small business owners, who rely on the revenue obtained from selling the foil balloons, worry about the future of their businesses, should the bill pass.
"This is not a means of trying to halt birthday parties,” said state Sen. Jack Scott, D-Altadena, who created the bill. Scott said that the estimated cost in damages, including money businesses have lost as a result of power outages, was $120 million in California last year.
If passed, the bill would impose a $100 fine on retailers and manufacturers who continue to sell helium-filled, foil balloons after January 2011. Three violations would result in a misdemeanor.
"It would hurt us a lot, definitely,” said John Kevranian, owner of Nuts For Candy on Broadway in Burlingame, of the ban. "It has a domino effect.”
Kevranian’s gift and candy shop, which has been in his family for 28 years, offers hundreds of varieties of Mylar balloons to consumers. Though the metallic balloons only bring in about 2 or 3 percent of the revenue of the shop, "It’s the principle of having the Mylar,” said Kevranian. "It brings people in.”
According to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a total of 211 power outages in California in 2007 were caused by Mylar balloons which came into contact with phone wires. The outages affected 143,000 customers of PG&E. In San Mateo County alone last year, there were 17 metallic balloon-related outages, and 10,000 PG&E customers were affected.
"Mylar balloons are primarily a public safety concern and a reliability issue for our customers,” said PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson. "When metallic balloons contact electric equipment, they create a short circuit, which has a possibility to cause fires, explosions, electrical arcing and power outages.”
Concerned suppliers of Mylar balloons, including the California Grocers Association and small businesses, have formed the "Save the Balloons” coalition in an effort to keep the bill from becoming legislation.
"It starts with education,” said Kevranian. "If you educate the retailer and the public, you have fewer problems.” Though a 1990 bill requested that foil balloons be attached to weights, manufacturers will not always provide the weights, said Kevranian. "We as merchants provide the weight. So instead of banning it, maybe what they can look at is providing a weight in the package.”
Scott said that the bill does not say that Mylar balloons cannot be sold. "You just can’t fill them with helium,” he said.
Still, Kevranian believes the bill is overreaching.
"We start with balloons, what will we ban next?” asked Kevranian. "Candy? Cigarettes? I don’t know.”
"It’s a multimillion dollar business,” he said. "Hundreds of jobs will be affected.”
The preliminary request to begin the ban in 2010 was extended by a year when the bill initially failed to pass the Assembly on June 24. Scott said that the current January 2011 effective date will be sufficient time for the balloon industry to develop a balloon that doesn’t contain metal.
In fact, these balloons already exist. Known as bubbles, these clear plastic latex balloons can have printed images on them. But, said Kevranian, these balloons are twice as expensive as Mylar balloons and they don’t last as long.
"Mylar balloons last between a week and two weeks. Latex balloons last less than 24 hours,” he said.