Personal Health

Are Your Mardi Gras Beads Killing You?

Those shiny carnival trinkets are loaded with dangerous levels of lead and other toxic materials.

Photo Credit: Satemkemet/Flickr — Creative Commons

If you're joining in the Mardi Gras revelry this week, beware of those traditional, cheap plastic beads that are integral to the celebration. Those beads and the other Fat Tuesday “throws” are dumping grounds for toxic waste and heavy metals, which pose severe health risks to those who wear or handle them.

Researchers have identified dangerous levels of lead, other toxic metals and toxic flame retardants in the strings of beads they've tested. The study is a collaboration between the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, MI and Verdi Gras, a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization dedicated to greening Mardi Gras. They tested 87 previously used Mardi Gras beads, collected from last year's celebration in New Orleans, for substances that have been linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity and cancer.

The researchers found most beads have one or more hazardous chemicals that have been linked to serious health threats. Also tested were other plastic “throws,” trinkets tossed by krewes on floats to parade-goers. Throws also include doubloons, cups and small toys. Some of these throws also had high levels of phthalates, known endocrine disrupters that are linked to breast cancer.

The throwing of these trinkets to the crowds was started in the early 1870s by the Twelfth Night Revelers, and is a time-honored tradition at New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations. The same beads are also distributed to bars, restaurants and retailers across North America for Fat Tuesday celebrations.

“These plastic bead products are being used as a dumping ground for old plastic waste, which is loaded with toxic chemicals,” says Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center’s principle researcher. “We estimate that a single year ’s inventory of Mardi Gras beads may contain up to 900,000 pounds of hazardous flame retardants and 10,000 pounds of lead.”

Gearhart and his team used electron microscope imagery to analyze the beads. They also compared the elemental composition of the beads to the contents of plastic waste found in the disposal and recycling system, leading to the conclusion that recycled plastic waste is a feasible source of the beads' filler ingredients.

Many of the toxic chemicals in the beads have a tendency to build up in human bodies. These chemicals include lead, bromine from brominated flame retardants, chlorine from PVC and chlorinated flame retardants, cadmium, arsenic, organotin compounds, phthalates and mercury.

More than two-thirds of the beads tested exceed the federal safety limit for lead established for children's products of 100 parts per million. While Mardi Gras beads are not a children’s product, it is not unusual for children to be exposed to the beads or for them to be used as toys.

“It is disturbing to see products as enticing to children as Mardi Gras and holiday beads containing such high amounts of lead,” said Howard W. Mielke, a study collaborator and professor at Tulane University School of Medicine. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are emphasizing that the only way to reduce a child’s exposure to lead and other toxicants is through prevention, yet children love these beads and often put them in their mouths. Eliminating preventable sources of lead in products is an important way to prevent human exposure to all sources of lead.”

Nearly 60 percent of the beads tested also contained elevated levels of bromine. Many of the fragments found in the bead filler also had halogenated flame retardants in them, including decabromodiphenyl ether and tetrabromobisphenol A. Decabromodiphenyl — which is the target of a Environmental Protection Agency voluntary phase-out — can seriously affect the liver, thyroid and reproductive system. It is also linked to adverse developmental and neurological effects. Tetrabromobisphenol A is an endocrine disrupter.

The report raises significant concerns not only for Mardi Gras revelers, but for the Chinese workers who melt down the plastic that goes into the beads.

Gearheart's organization is warning people not to give the beads to children and to wash their hands after handling the beads. They recommend that anyone who handles these beads regularly wear gloves. Also, the organization warns people never to leave the beads in direct sunlight or incinerate them as the contents can be emitted in smoke or in gaseous states.


Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.


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