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Holiday and Mardi Gras beads found to contain lead and hazardous flame retardants

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Study highlights long-lived hazards of poorly regulated chemical use
December 5, 2013

New research has found thousands of pounds of hazardous chemicals in plastic beaded products, including beaded holiday garlands and Mardi Gras beads. The study is a collaboration between HealthyStuff.org, a project of the Ecology Center, and VerdiGras, a nonprofit organization in New Orleans dedicated to "greening" Mardi Gras. Researchers found most beads have one or more hazardous chemicals that have been linked to serious health threats.

Ecology Center researchers tested a total of 106 beaded products, including 19 beaded holiday garlands (new products) from national retailers as well as 87 Mardi Gras beads (previously used) for substances that have been linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity and cancer.

Products tested included beaded necklaces and throws collected from New Orleans and holiday garlands purchased from six top national retailers (CVS, Walgreens, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target, and Walmart).

The results were posted Dec. 5 on the easy-to-use consumer website HealthyStuff.org, which also contains research data for a variety of products including toys, cars, child car seats, pet products, and back-to-school products. HealthyStuff.org has conducted tests of consumer products since 2006.

“These plastic bead products are being used as a dumping ground for old plastic waste, which is loaded with toxic chemicals,” said 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 other researchers used electron microscope imagery to examine the interior and exterior of the beads. In addition, researchers compared the elemental composition of the beads to plastic waste streams, leading to the conclusion that recycled plastic waste is the most likely filler ingredient in the beads. In addition, plastic waste streams can contain the hazardous chemicals identified in the study.

HealthyStuff.org tested the beaded products for chemicals based on their toxicity or their tendency to build up in people and the environment. These chemicals include lead, bromine (brominated flame retardants), chlorine (PVC and chlorinated flame retardants), cadmium, arsenic, tin (organotins), phthalates and mercury.

Two-thirds of the Mardi Gras beads tested exceed 100 part per million (ppm) of lead, which is the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) federal safety limit for lead in children’s products. While Mardi Gras beads are not classified as a children’s product, children certainly can come into regular contact with the beads.

"It is disturbing to see products as enticing to children as Mardi Gras and holiday beads containing such high amounts of lead," according to Howard W. Mielke, professor at Tulane University School of Medicine and a study collaborator. “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.”

“This report raises significant concerns not only for our community celebrations that feature these beads and trinkets, but also for all of us during the holidays when trimming our trees. It also raises concerns for the Chinese workers who melt down the plastic that goes into these products,” said physician Holly Groh, one of the founders of VerdiGras. “As New Orleans residents, the hazards present in the beads and throws shocked my husband and me. 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."

HealthyStuff.org recommends common sense precautions when handling these products because they may contain hazardous substances.

  • Do not allow children (or adults) to put beads in their mouths.
  • Wash your hands after handling the beads.
  • Bring baby wipes to the parade to wipe children’s hands after catching and playing with beads and before eating.
  • Wash the beads that have been caught, especially if they were lying on the ground. Recycle the beads.
  • Never burn the beads and do not store them in sunlight.
  • People who regularly handle beads should wear gloves.

Highlights of findings from HealthyStuff.org’s bead study:

Mardi Gras bead findings:

  • More than half (64 percent) of the products tested (56 of 87) had levels of lead above 100 ppm. For comparison purposes, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) limits lead in children's product to 100 ppm.
  • More than half (59 percent) of the products tested (51 of 87) had levels of bromine above 400 ppm, suggesting the presence of brominated flame retardants (BFRs).
  • Nearly half, 45 percent, of the products sampled contained BFR levels in the range of 1 percent to 2 percent (by weight or 10,000-20,000 ppm). 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).
  • About 63 percent (55 of 87) of the products had levels of chlorine above 3,500 ppm, suggesting the use of either PVC or chlorinated flame retardants (CFRs).
  • 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.
  • A plastic Mardi Gras football contained about 29 percent phthalates by weight, including Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (280,000 ppm), a phthalate banned by the CPSC.

Holiday beaded garland findings:

For this study, HealthyStuff.org purchased new 19 beaded garlands of various colors, shapes, and lengths from six national retailers (CVS, Walgreens, Lowes, Home Depot, Target and Walmart). These holiday garlands were purchased in Michigan between October and November of 2013.

  • About 74 percent (14 of 19) of the beaded garlands had bromine levels above 400 parts per million (ppm), suggesting the use of brominated flame retardants.
  • About 42 percent (8 of 19) of the beaded garlands had chlorine levels above 3,500 ppm, suggesting the use of PVC or chlorinated flame retardants.
  • Over two thirds (12 of 19) of the beaded garlands had levels of lead exceeding 100 ppm.
  • The highest level of lead was 4,161 ppm found in a beaded garland purchased at Lowe’s.

Many of the substances found in the beaded products have already been restricted or banned in other consumer products.

One of the flame retardants found in the beads (decaBDE) is restricted in four states (Maine, Washington, Vermont and Oregon). In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) negotiated a voluntary phase-out of the use of decaBDE for U.S. producers and importers of decaBDE. The phase out was effective in most products by the end of 2012 and in all products by the end of 2013.

Lead has been restricted in children’s products by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, but remains poorly regulated in all other products.

To conduct the tests, experts used a High Definition X-Ray Fluorescence (HD XRF) analyzer and laboratory testing. HD XRF is an accurate device that has been used by the EPA to screen packaging; the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to screen food; and many State and County Health Departments to screen for residential lead paint. Additional samples were analyzed by laboratories.

To download the full study results, click here. Detailed information about what consumers can do is available at HealthyStuff.org.

For more information, contact: Jeff Gearhart, jeffg@ecocenter.org, 734-369-9276 or 734-945-7738 Karla Pena, karla@ecocenter.org, 510-501-6634