New research finds 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 Ann Arbor-based nonprofit organization, 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. 

READ: Full report on beaded garlands

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 Thursday on the consumer website HealthyStuff.org.

"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.

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," said 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. 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 Holly Groh, M.D. and one of the founders of VerdiGras. "As a 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.

Mardi Gras bead findings:

  • Over half (64%) of the products tested (56 of 87) had levels of lead above 100 ppm.
  • More than half (59%) of the products tested (51 of 87) had brominated flame retardants (BFRs)
  • About 63% (55 of 87) of the products had chlorinated flame retardants (CFRs).

Holiday beaded garland findings:

  • About 74% (14 of 19) of the beaded garlands had brominated flame retardants.
  • About 42% (8 of 19) of the beaded garlands had chlorinated flame retardants.
  • Over two thirds (12 of 19) of the beaded garlands had levels of lead exceeding 100 ppm.