Big Chem-EZ: What is the toxic truth behind Mardi Gras beads?

Each year 25 million pounds of plastic beads are manufactured for use during Mardi Gras. Besides wearing the beads or taking them to bead recycling centers (hopefully), millions of pounds of beads end up on trees, in the streets drains, or in landfills. I’m here to shed some light on the chemicals commonly found in these highly sought-after plastic beads and the hazards associated with those chemicals.

So now let us talk about the chemical composition of Mardi Gras beads. The plastic on the beads contain hazardous metals such as lead, as well as bromine and chlorine-based flame retardants. The overall composition of plastic beads is similar to the composition of electronic waste since this waste is commonly recycled into hard plastics. Researchers at the Ecology Center expect there to be about 900,000 pounds of hazardous flame retardant and 10,000 pounds of lead in each year’s total plastic bead manufacture.

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Child Playing with Plastic Beads (Photo By: Paul Peck)

While lead exposure is dangerous to everyone’s health, it is particularly dangerous for young children. Lead is a heavy metal that is commonly used in many consumer products although scientists have determined that there is no safe level of lead for children, with the smallest amounts of lead being able to cause damage to the developments of the brain, muscle weakness, and kidney damage. To put this in perspective, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) limits lead in products to 100 parts per million (ppm). However, over 60% of the Mardi Gras beads thrown are expected to have lead levels well above 100 ppm [1]

Halogenated (chlorine & bromine based) flame retardants are also found at a percentage in the beads. Exposure to these halogenated flame retardants have been associated with reproductive system toxicity, effects on fetal and child development, and neurological function damage, as well as being a known carcinogen [1]. Levels of 400 ppm of the brominated flame retardants and 3,500 ppm of the chlorinated flame retardants had been seen and tested by researchers at the Ecology Center. In 2004, brominated flame retardants were banned in the United States, but since many of the Mardi Gras beads are manufactured in China the same guidelines do not apply [2]. Chlorinated flame retardants are currently under a study as a potential carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency [3].

As you can see there are many hazardous chemicals used in the production of the plastic beads thrown during Mardi Gras. So while it is fun to gather as many beads as possible, proceed with caution.

Happy Mardi Gras!

-Big Chem-EZ (Madison McCall)



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