FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 26, 2014

CONTACT: Jeff Gearhart, 734-369-9276 or Karla Peña, 734-369-9270

Mardi Gras Beads Found to Contain Hazardous Flame Retardants and Lead

Health Advocates Call for Comprehensive Federal Regulatory Reform to Address Chemical Hazards in Products, Precautions for Consumers Suggested

(Ann Arbor, MI) – A new research study finds that top retailers of Mardi Gras bead necklaces continue to sell beads and throws containing hazardous chemicals. The study is a follow-up to a 2013 study that found similar results in used beads that were collected after Mardi Gras. The study is 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 both new and used beads have one or more hazardous chemicals that have been linked to serious health threats.

(Click Here to View our HealthyStuff.org Mardi Gras Bead Fact Sheet)

In the last year, Ecology Center researchers tested a total of 135 Mardi Gras beads (87 previously used and 48 new) 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 new Mardi Gras beads purchased from three bead wholesalers.

“Millions of pounds of these beads are distributed during Mardi Gras and our study finds that both new and used beads are loaded with toxic chemicals,” said Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center’s principle researcher. “Unfortunately, a gaping hole in our regulatory system makes in perfectly legal for these products to be sold.” Environmentalists and public health advocates have called for a comprehensive reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act to address these issues.

HealthyStuff.org tested the beaded products for chemicals based on their toxicity or their tendency to build up in people and the environment. These chemicals include lead, bromine (brominated flame retardants), chlorine (PVC and chlorinated flame retardants), cadmium, arsenic, tin (organotins), phthalates and mercury. 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. In addition, plastic waste streams can contain the hazardous chemicals identified in the study.

The study found that over 90% of the all beads contained at least one of the following harmful chemicals; lead, hazardous flame retardants, arsenic or cadmium. Nearly eighty percent of the beads contained 400 parts per million (ppm) of bromine, suggesting the use of halogenated flame retardants.

Over two-thirds (71% - 34 of 48) of the Mardi Gras beads tested exceed 100 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 for community celebrations around the country, not just in New Orleans. It also raises concerns for the Chinese workers who melt down the plastic that goes into these products,” said Holly Groh, M.D., one of the founders of VerdiGras. “As New Orleanians, we were shocked by the hazards found in the beads and throws. 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.

Highlights of Findings from HealthyStuff.org’s Bead Study:
  • Over 70% of the products tested (34 of 48) had levels of lead above 100 ppm. For comparison purposes, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) limits lead in children's product to less than 100 ppm.
  • Nearly 80% of the products tested (38 of 48) had levels of bromine above 400 ppm, suggesting the presence of brominated flame retardants.
  • Seventeen beads were manufactured in 2012 of which fourteen, contained at least three or more chemicals of concern at detectable levels (10 ppm).
  • 33% of the products sampled contained brominated flame retardant levels in the range of 1-2% (by weight or 10,000-20,000 ppm).
  • Electron microscope images of the beads show fragments of material that appear to be used as filler in the production of the beads. Many of these fragments have halogenated flame retardants in them, including:
    • decaBDE (decabromodiphenyl ether)
    • tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA)
  • 75% (36 of 48) of the products had levels of chlorine above 3,500 ppm, suggesting the use of either PVC or chlorinated flame retardants (CFRs).
  • The interior of Mardi Gras beads, which often get shattered during celebrations, contained concentrations of hazardous chemicals that were as high as the exterior coating of the beads.

Many of the substances found in the beaded products have already been restricted or banned in other consumer products. One of the flame retardants found in the beads (decaBDE) is restricted in four states (Maine, Washington, Vermont and Oregon). In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) negotiated a voluntary phase-out of the use of decaBDE for U.S. producers and importers of decaBDE. The phase out was effective in most products by the end of 2012 and in all 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 an accurate 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. Additional samples were analyzed by laboratories.

Full study results and detailed information about what consumers can do is available at HealthyStuff.org.

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