Mardi Gras beads

Beware of the Smirch!: New childrens’ book highlights the Ecology Center’s research on dangers of toxic Mardi Gras throws

A new book written by Verdi Gras’ Holly Groh, M.D. demonstrates the dangers of toxic Mardi Gras throws and overconsumption. The Smirch of Mardi Gras draws on Ecology Center research to educate children and adults alike on the far-reaching impacts of Mardi Gras throws, from their start as oil from the Middle East, to their manufacturing in overseas countries such as China, to ending up in rivers after being discarded.

The illustrated book features the Smirch, a creature eager to spread Mardi Gras joy and indulgence. However, it’s not all fun and games when he plants dreams of even more throws and doubloons in the minds of New Orleans residents. These products increase year after year, while those involved in the manufacturing get increasingly sick from the e-waste and chemicals that go into the throws and the city becomes bogged down with waste. 

Eventually, residents realize the harm this causes both their city and everyone involved in the throws’ production, and the Smirch comes to see the errors of his ways. 

Although hyperbolic in some regards, Dr. Groh’s story is grounded in facts. 

Working alongside Verdi Gras, a New Orleans-based non-profit devoted to reducing Mardi Gras waste, the Ecology Center’s Healthy Stuff Labs tested beaded necklaces in 2013 and 2019. Both studies found high levels of toxic chemicals such as lead and bromine, suggesting the presence of fire retardants. (Read more in our report Chemical Hazards in Mardi Gras Beads: 2020 Update). 

Lead is a known neurotoxin: there is no safe level of lead exposure. Many flame retardants are known endocrine disruptors, and some are linked to cancer. One-third (33%) of our bead samples contained lead at levels higher than 100 parts per million (ppm), the limit allowed in children's products in the United States. 

Twenty five million pounds of plastic beads are thrown every year in New Orleans alone, and most of these throws end up in landfills or left on the streets, with literal tons of waste clogging storm drains and polluting waterways. 

The Smirch of Mardi Gras also sheds light on another harmful aspect of these toxic throws: the hazards that workers in overseas factories face when manufacturing cheap, disposable throws. While the children’s book doesn’t go into the grim details, the reality is bleak, as David Redmon outlines in Smithsonian Magazine.

The Smirch is a fictional character but the hazards of toxic Mardi Gras throws are very real… for now. If the hard work of Verdi Gras and the Ecology Center pays off, krewes will change their ways and stop throwing throws or use non-toxic alternatives.