The Disgusting Truth About Chemicals in Mardi Gras Beads

New report finds ridiculous levels of lead and other heavy metals in cheap beaded necklaces.

March 3, 2014


Mardi Gras is full of gorgeous feathery costumes, cocktails, flashy masks, and…toxic flame retardants?


We don't want to spoil your Fat Tuesday fun, but maybe skip the beaded necklaces this year. Aside from being destined for landfill waste, those plastic little beads pack a potent chemical punch. A recent investigation detected extremely hazardous chemicals in Mardi Gras beads.

The holiday's origins trace back to medieval Europe, where one of the traditions—beaded necklace throwing—included tossing beaded strings made of glass. Probably a cleanup disaster, but the move to replace glass with plastic many years ago has its flaws, too.

More from Rodale News: Fat Tuesday's Plastic Hangover

Why? Those plastic beaded necklaces have become the dumping grounds for recycling plastic, particularly plastic electronic waste often laced with harmful heavy metals and other substances linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity, and cancer. Let's not toast to that!

In the latest investigation looking at what's really in those plastic Mardi Gras beads, researchers from, The Ecology Center, and VerdiGras, a group dedicated to greening Mardi Gras in New Orleans, purchased 48 beaded necklaces from New Orleans wholesalers, analyzed them to see what they're made of, and found that more than 90 percent of the beads contained at least lead, toxic flame retardants, arsenic, or cadmium.

"Millions of pounds of these beads are distributed during Mardi Gras and our study finds that both new and used beads are loaded with toxic chemicals," says Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center's principle researcher. "Unfortunately, a gaping hole in our regulatory system makes in perfectly legal for these products to be sold."

Here are more finds from the chemicals in Mardi Gras beads investigation:

•More than 70 percent of the products tested contained levels of lead above 100 parts per million, the maximum amount of lead allowed in children's products, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

•Nearly 80 percent of the products tested contained levels bromine above 400 ppm, suggesting the presence of brominated flame retardants.

•75 percent of the products contained concerning chlorine levels, suggesting the use of either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or chlorinated flame retardants.

•Many of the bead fillers were made of different types of toxic flame retardants.

•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.


In a separate 2013 analysis looking at about 100 new and used Mardi Gras beads, also found widespread chemical contamination, including one necklace that contained nearly 30,000 ppm of lead—that's 300 times the limit considered safe for children by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"This report raises significant concerns for community celebrations around the country, not just in New Orleans. It also raises concerns for the Chinese workers who melt down the plastic that goes into these products," says Holly Groh, MD, one of the founders of VerdiGras. "As New Orleanians, we were shocked by the hazards found in the beads and throws. We hope manufacturers will be more cautious with what goes into their products because of the findings of this report and, until the market cleans up, we encourage people to take precautions when handling the beads and throws."

Here are more ways to avoid absorbing chemicals from Mardi Gras Beads:

•Don't give those Mardi Gras beaded necklaces—you can buy them in dollar and box stores all over the country—to kids. "It is disturbing to see products as enticing to children as Mardi Gras and holiday beads containing such high amounts of lead," says Howard W. Mielke, PhD, 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."

•Avoid plastic holiday beaded garlands, too. Worrisome levels of toxic chemicals were also found in many of these products commonly sold at U.S. retailers.

•Wash your hands after using beads, if you must use them.

•Ask your representatives to support meaningful regulation of toxic chemicals.

•Reuse beads from last year in order to reduce waste, if you must use beads.

For more information on safeguarding your family from harmful chemicals, check out The 12 Worst Chemicals in Your Home.