Study reveals Mardi Gras beads contain toxic chemical

A new study has revealed that many Mardi Gras beads contain hazardous chemicals.

In the study, conducted by (a project of the Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor, MI-based non-profit) and local non-profit VerdiGras, 48 bead necklaces were purchased from three wholesale retailers in New Orleans. More than 80 percent of these beads contained at least one or more toxic chemicals including arsenic, hazardous flame retardants, cadmium and lead. The study is a follow-up to one conducted in 2013 that yielded similar results.

Seventy-one percent of the beads contained levels of lead exceeding standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Committee (CPSC) for children’s products. Almost 80 percent of the beads contained high levels of bromine, suggesting the use of halogenated flame retardants. Over 90 percent of the beads contained at least one harmful chemical. One of the flame retardants found in the beads (decaBDE) is restricted in four states.

“It’s disturbing to see products as enticing to children as Mardi Gras and holiday beads containing such high amounts of lead,” said Howard W. Mielke, PhD, a professor at Tulane University School of Medicine who worked on the study. “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.”

The law that theoretically should limit these materials from being put into consumer products is 1976’s Toxic Substance Control Act, which grants authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate new and existing commercial chemicals that may pose a risk to public or environmental health, as well as regulate the distribution and use of these chemicals. However, it’s a piece of legislation many experts feel fails the American public.

“Unfortunately, a gaping hole in our regulatory system makes it perfectly legal for these products to be sold,” said Jeff Gearhart, principle researcher on the study and research director of the Ecology Center.

Gearhart said that the TSCA allows toxic materials to be used in the casing of many electronic products. When electronics are disposed of, they’re often sent to China, where they’re recycled and put into other items, including Mardi Gras beads. While these chemicals are dangerous in any product, they’re particularly dangerous in Mardi Gras beads because young children often handle them and put them in their mouths. These chemicals are superfluous and serve no engineering purpose in the beads.

“The products shouldn’t have been on the marketplace in the first place,” Gearhart said. “It’s a ridiculous cycle.”

But it’s not just New Orleanians who should be concerned. The implications of the study affect people across the globe.

“This report raises significant concerns for community celebrations around the country, not just in New Orleans,” said Holly Groh, M.D. and one of the founders of VerdiGras. “It also raises concerns for the Chinese workers who melt down the plastic that goes into these products.”

Even though the ultimate goal of the researchers is to get voters to demand that the government institute meaningful policy reform, there are short-term things locals can do in the meantime. Krewes can demand that suppliers provide assurances that beads are not made from recycled toxic products. HealthyStuff’s suggestions to parade goers include the following: wash your hands after using beads, wear gloves if you’re regularly handling them, never burn beads, do not store them in sunlight, and do not allow children to put beads in their mouths.

The EPA did not have a comment in time for press.

This article originally published in the March 3, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.