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Untangling The Chemical Concoction of Mardi Gras Beads

It’s a buzzkill to think about. But every year, Mardi Gras beads leave a massive, toxic mess behind in New Orleans.

It’s a buzzkill to think about. But every year, Mardi Gras beads leave a massive, toxic mess behind in New Orleans.

According to a recent report published in Smithsonian Magazine, about 25 million pounds of colorful beaded necklaces — known as “throws” — are distributed in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Much of the throws are dumped onto the streets — so much so that one researcher studying the patterns of lead throughout the city found the highest concentrations in the soil along parade routes.

Made from the typical building blocks of plastic — polyethylene and polystyrene — the beads have been found to contain toxic levels of numerous chemicals including bromine, arsenic, phthalate plasticizers, halogens, cadmium, chromium, mercury and chlorine both on and inside the beads. All told, researchers have estimated that up to 920,000 pounds of mixed chlorinated and brominated flame retardants are in all of the beads.

Are the beads actually dangerous to handle? According to one researcher, the concern is about exposure to children, especially when it comes to lead. Previous studies have found that lead is present in the beads at a level 300 times above what is considered safe by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In the past few years, efforts to curb the environmental and human health impact of Mardi Gras have gained steam. For example, one company called Zombeads sells beads with organic and biodegradable ingredients.

Environmental groups also encourage revelers to recycle the necklaces instead of buying new ones, and to stop children from putting them in their mouths.

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