VPIRG: This Mardi Gras season, beware the toxic beads

Montpelier, VT — The Vermont Public Interest Research Group issued a warning today for all those who may be interested in celebrating Mardi Gras with necklaces of cheap plastic beads. The group’s advice? Don’t do it. Or at a minimum, take precautions to minimize toxic threats.

Citing past research by the Ecology Center and VerdiGras,[i] VPIRG noted that the colorful plastic beads commonly worn during Mardi Gras celebrations may contain dangerous toxins such as lead, brominated flame retardants, arsenic, phthalate plasticizers, halogens, cadmium, chromium, mercury and chlorine. These toxins can represent particularly severe threats to children.

In this week before “Fat Tuesday” on March 5th, VPIRG is highlighting the potential risks associated with the beads as part of its Campaign to Stop Single-Use Plastic Pollution. The bead necklaces are a prime example of the growing problem of plastic pollution.

“We’re urging people to think carefully before buying and wearing throwaway plastic necklaces that could be loaded with toxic chemicals,” said Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG. “The potential health threat probably isn’t worth it for anyone, but children are at greatest risk because they’re more likely to ingest the toxins and suffer significant harm.”

The exploitation of those making the necklaces is also raising concerns. It is often young Chinese workers who melt down the plastic to create the beads in the first place. According to the documentary, “Mardi Gras: Made in China,”[ii] it is common for teenage girls and women to be forced to compete with one another to create necklaces as quickly as possible. One of the workers in the documentary suggests that price of one inexpensive necklace might be the equivalent of three months of pay for her.

“Once you know how these beaded necklaces are made, and considering the accompanying threat to the environment and the violation of human rights that they represent, it’s hard to look at them the same way again,” said Samantha Hurt, an environmental associate with VPIRG.

The lead content of the beads is recognized as a health threat, even by officials in Louisiana, the epicenter for Mardi Gras celebrations in this country. A fact sheet from the Louisiana Department of Health warns that “Some beads and throws may contain lead and there may be lead in the soil along the parade routes.”[iii] Incredibly, the lead content of the beads is high enough that it has resulted in elevated lead levels in the soil along the traditional parade routes (where bead necklaces are often tossed to revelers).

Other key points and findings from the Ecology Center and VerdiGras report include:

  • More than half of the beaded necklaces and other similar products tested (56 of 87) had levels of lead above 100 ppm. For comparison purposes, both Vermont and the federal government have laws in place to limit lead in children’s products and some other products to 100 ppm. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a limit of 40 ppm.
  • Lead exposure in children increases their risks for damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavioral problems (reduced IQ, ADHD, criminal behavior), and hearing and speech problems.
  • More than half (51 of 87) had levels of bromine above 400 ppm, suggesting the presence of brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Electron microscope images of the beads show fragments of material that appear to be used as filler in the production of the beads. Many of these fragments have halogenated flame retardants in them, including decaBDE (decabromodiphenyl ether) and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA). Vermont has passed several laws to regulate toxic flame retardants, but they may not offer complete protection against these beads, which may themselves be made of discarded electronic waste.[iv]
  • Brominated flame retardants are associated with immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, effects on fetal and child development, thyroid and neurological function and cancer.
  • The interior of Mardi Gras beads, which often get shattered during celebrations, contained concentrations of hazardous chemicals that were as high as the exterior coating of the beads.

VPIRG urges consumers to avoid purchasing or wearing cheap, plastic Mardi Gras beads. It is impossible to tell just by looking which necklaces pose the greatest toxic threat.

If you do have bead necklaces, do not allow children to put them in their mouths under any circumstances. If children handle the beads, be sure to wash their hands (and yours) before eating. Never burn the beads and do not store them in direct sunlight. Recycle them if possible.

“Our message is pretty simple,” said Burns. “If you choose to celebrate Mardi Gras, be safe and have fun. But if you care about your health, our environment and human rights, it might be best to skip the beads this year.”

[i] https://www.ecocenter.org/article/hs-news/holiday-and-mardi-gras-beads-found-contain-lead-and-hazardous-flame-retardants

[ii] Selected scenes: https://vimeo.com/87231218

[iii] http://ldh.la.gov/assets/oph/Center-PHCH/Center-H/genetic/LEAD/NewsandUpdates/MardigrassBookmarkLeadPoisoning.pdf

[iv] https://www.vpirg.org/issues/toxics-and-environmental-health/resources/chemicals-of-concern/flame-retardants/