Festival beads from New Orleans and Florida found to contain lead and hazardous flame retardants

Study calls for restrictions on use of hazardous recycled content in products

New research has found hazardous chemicals in plastic beaded necklaces typically known as Mardi Gras beads. The study is a collaboration between the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and community members in Florida and Louisiana.  Researchers found the majority of beads contained several chemicals that have been linked to serious health threats. In particular, lead and several types of flame retardants were detected at high levels.  View the new Mardi Gras Beads test results.

Ecology Center researchers tested 56 beaded necklaces collected from Gasparilla parades in Florida and from Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans in late 2018 and early 2019.  The beads were tested for substances that have been linked to birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity and cancer.

The results were posted February 24th by the Ecology Center at HealthyStuff.org, whose researchers have tested consumer products for hazardous chemicals since 2006.

“These bead products are being used as a dumping ground for old plastic waste apparently from electronics, which is loaded with toxic chemicals,” said Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center’s research director. “We estimate that a single year’s inventory of Mardi Gras beads may contain many thousands of pounds of hazardous flame retardants and lead.  We are calling on the government and companies to stop using hazardous recycled content in consumer products like festival beads.”

The new results agree with the results of an earlier study on Mardi Gras beads.  In 2013, the Ecology Center and other researchers identified multiple different flame retardants in the beads and used electron microscopy to find particles within the beads containing high levels of these chemicals. In addition, researchers found that the composition of the beads showed a chemical signature similar to plastic electronic waste, leading to the conclusion that recycled plastic from electronic devices comprises the bulk of the material in many of these beads. 

Chemicals analyzed in the beads included lead, bromine (indicating brominated flame retardants), chlorine (indicating chlorinated flame retardants), and antimony (indicating antimony-based flame retardants). These chemicals were chosen based on their toxicity or tendency to build up in people and our environment.

One-third of the Mardi Gras beads tested exceeded 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 festival beads are not classified as a children’s product, children certainly can come into regular contact with the beads.

“We’ve been working to have healthier, safer products for nearly 10 years (as well as a lot less of them in number).  This new study shows little has changed, unfortunately, with the toxins,” said physician, mother Holly Groh, New Orleans resident who assisted in the study.  “The hazards present in the beads and throws are of utmost concern to the health our Louisiana residents, water, and land.  Because of the important findings in this report, we urge immediate change in manufacturing, thereby protecting those producing and receiving these products.  Until safe beads and throws are produced, we encourage people to take precautions when handling beads and throws.”

A catalog of alternative, sustainable hand made throws has been created by New Orleans-based Grounds Krewe. 

The Ecology Center 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 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.

  • Never burn the beads and do not store them in sunlight.

  • People who regularly handle beads should wear gloves.

Highlights of findings from the Ecology Center bead study:

Festival bead findings:

  • Of 66 components tested in the 56 necklaces, we found most of them contained indicators of hazardous flame retardants. High levels of bromine (70% of tested samples) and antimony (64% of tested samples) were found, strongly suggesting the presence of brominated flame retardants and antimony trioxide. 70% of these beads also contained levels of chlorine consistent with the presence of chlorinated flame retardants. FTIR indicated vinyl (PVC) was not present, and our research on beads from 2013 detected the notorious flame retardant chlorinated tris in some beads.

  • One-third (33%) of the samples contained over 100 parts per million (ppm) lead, ranging as high as 472 ppm. For comparison purposes, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) limits lead in children's products to 100 ppm.

  • Additional tests done a subset of the beads found that 15 out of 17 contained a type of triphenyl phosphate chemical. These phosphates are used as flame retardants or as plasticizers. 

  • Previous work published in 2013 documented the use of recycled e-waste as filler in the production of the beads. Many of these e-waste fragments contain halogenated flame retardants, including decaBDE (decabromodiphenyl ether) and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA).

  • The hazardous chemicals in Mardi Gras-style beads appear to be scattered throughout the bulk of the beads. The potential for release to the environment when beads left outdoors break or weather over time has not been studied.

Many of the substances found in both the 2013 and 2020 studies have already been restricted or banned in other consumer products. One of the flame retardants found in the beads (decaBDE) was phased out of 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 a reliable 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. 

The full report and test results are available at HealthyStuff.org.