Test: Unwanted chemicals in balloons

4. apr 2019

Balloons can release carcinogens when in contact with saliva. The Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals have tested 15 balloons for the release of nitrosamines.

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Test af kemi i balloner
Foto: Getty Images

Balloons may contain carcinogens

Balloons are festive and you can use them on many occasions. But balloons can also release problematic chemicals that you get exposed to when you blow them up or when children put the balloons in their mouth.

The Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals have examined the release of the carcinogenic chemicals nitrosamines and nitrosatable substances from 15 different balloons.

The EU has set a limit for the release of the carcinogenic substances from balloons and other toys that can be put in the mouth.

See the test with product pictures (link to test in Danish)

Several balloons comply with the requirements

The test shows that there are several balloons that fulfill the legal requirements.

8 out of 15 balloons comply with the limit values. These balloons either had a low release or a release close to the limit value. They were all from Danish retailers.

Beware of buying from online marketplaces

7 of the tested balloons had chemical releases above the legal limit values.

5 of these 7 balloons were purchased at online marketplaces such as Wish.com and Amazon. The balloons were sent to the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals from companies outside the EU.

Both Amazon and Wish.com have removed the non-compliant balloons from their platform after they were made aware of the test results.

You can minimize the exposure to the nitrosamines if you blow up the balloons with a balloon pump instead of your mouth.

The Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals recommend not buying toys such as balloons at online marketplaces outside the EU.

If you have further questions contact project manager Stine Müller on sm@fbr.dk

How we tested

The Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals have purchased 15 different balloons, all with prints.

10 of the balloons were purchased in Danish stores - either in physical stores or online.

5 balloons were purchased from so-called online marketplaces - Wish.com, Lightinthebox.com and Amazon.com - where you do not buy the products from the company behind the marketplace, but rather directly from the manufacturers, who are typically based outside the EU.

The purchased balloons were sent to the lab for chemical analysis to investigate their release of nitrosamines or nitrosatable substances. If the package contained several different colors, the release was measured for a mixture of up to 3 different colors.

What we found

Of the 15 balloons tested, we found:

  • 7 balloons released nitrosamines and/or nitrosatable substances at levels above the limit.
  • 4 balloons released nitrosamines and/or nitrosatable substances at levels close to the limit.
  • 4 balloons released nitrosamines and nitrosatable substances at levels below the limit value.

The measured migration varied from:

  • Nitrosamines: 0,01- 2,5 milligram per kilogram.
  • Nitrosatable substances: 0,05-27 milligram per kilogram

The limit value for the release of nitrosamines is 0,05 milligram per kilogram.

The limit value for the release of nitrosatable substances is 1 milligram per kilogram.

The balloons with the highest emission of nitrosamines were purchased from Amazon. The release was 15 times higher than the allowed limit.

The balloons with the highest emission of nitrosatable substances were also purchased on Amazon. The release was 27 times higher than the limit value.

The Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals have notified the Chemical Inspection at the Danish Environmental Protection Agency about the 7 balloons that exceed the legal limits.

Nitrosamines in balloons

Balloons can release the carcinogenic chemicals when in contact with saliva - for example, when you blow them up or when children suck on them or inhale, when blowing the balloon up. Children’s hand to mouth contact is also believed to be a source of exposure.

The problematic substances are nitrosamines which are carcinogenic and the nitrosatable substances that can be converted into carcinogenic nitrosamines.

Balloons are made of rubber (latex) and during the production of rubber, nitrosamines and nitrosatable substances can be formed depending on which substances are used for the production of the rubber.

Since 2011, there have been EU rules for the delivery of nitrosamines and nitrosatable substances from balloons and other toys intended for children to put in their mouths. The rules also apply to all toys for children under 3 years.

Soothers and feeding bottles also have legal requirements for the release of nitrosamines and nitrosatable substances.

The Danish Environmental Protection Agency have previously made marked surveillance on balloons and have found a high number of non-compliant products, although the number of non-compliant products has declined over the years.

In 2014 more than half of the balloons did not meet the legal limit. In their last examination from 2016, 4 out of 20 balloons from the Danish marked released illegal quantities. If we do not consider the balloons bought on online platforms, the number of balloons exceeding the limit in our survey are at the same level: 2 out of 10 balloons.

Labeling and smell from the balloons

Balloons are dangerous for children under the age of 8 because the children can choke on them.

Balloons should therefore carry a warning that children under the age of 8 should not play with them without the supervision of an adult.

However, this warning was not found on the packaging of 4 of the tested balloons. 3 of these were among the high-nitrosamines-release balloons.

Some of the balloons also smelled very strongly when opening the packages.

Balloons usually smell a bit of rubber, but in these cases there were a very strong chemical smell from the balloons. The balloons with the strong smell were also found to have a high release of the unwanted substances, so there seems to be a correlation between the strong chemical smell and the release of nitrosamines or nitrosatable substances.

Consumer advice on how to treat balloons
  • Buy balloons from Danish or European retailers - either in physical stores or in online shops.
  • Balloons that smell very chemically should not be used. Return the products instead.
  • Always use a so-called balloon pump to inflate balloons. Then you and the children will not have to suck on the balloons when inflating them.
  • Do not let the children suck on the balloons.
  • Throw out balloons that have been torn apart. This reduces the risk of children being choked in small pieces from the balloons.