Beads are a colorful symbol of Mardi Gras and are thrown from the many Krewes participating in the yearly parades. According to Mardi Gras Day, “the bead phenomena is a relatively new one considering that while the first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans occurred in the 1830s, it wasn’t until the Rex parade threw inexpensive handmade glass necklaces sometime in the 1920s that the tradition was born.”
According to International Business Times, “The color of the beads was determined by the king of the first daytime Carnival in 1872. He wanted the colors to be royal colors – purple for justice, gold for power and green for faith. The idea was to toss the color to the person who exhibited the color’s meaning.”
“The beads were originally made of glass, which, as you can imagine, weren’t the best for tossing around. It wasn’t until the beads were made of plastic that throwing them really became a staple of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”
Tens of millions of pounds of painted plastic beads are now thrown and distributed every year. But therein lies a problem.
In the past, many of these cheap plastic beads contained toxic metals, like lead (Pb) and cadmium (Cd) and were banned. Unfortunately, despite the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) limits of lead in children’s products to under 100ppm, there are still many beads out there that contain higher concentrates of those dangerous heavy metals and should be avoided.
A couple years ago, the non-profit organization, Ecology Center, reported that a research group found thousands of pounds of hazardous chemicals in plastic beaded products, including Mardi Gras beads. Researchers found most beads had one or more hazardous chemicals that have been linked to serious health threats. Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center ’s principle researcher said: “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….[and after examination concluded] recycled plastic waste is the most likely filler ingredient in the beads.”
If the manufacturer is using recycled plastic and that plastic hasn’t been screened for toxins, it is then passed along to the consumer. Last year we wrote about the growing need for plastics identification and sorting in the scrap industry because of the increasing plastics recycling and recovery rates. Portable identification technologies, like handheld (Near Infra Red) NIR material analyzers, can be used to rapidly screen and identify a variety of polymers, plastics and fiber types on-site to streamline inspection without compromising accuracy and quality.
In addition, although most Mardi Gras necklaces are made of plastic, many also have shiny colors because many of the inexpensive necklaces are comprised of MOT (Molded on Thread) beads, which are then applied with a metallic finish. The metallic acrylic paint is created by taking a binder made of acrylic polymer resin and water and combining it with powdered metal and pigment to provide the desired color. (See more about metallic beads in this article.) Those metals may also contain dangerous elements, like lead, mercury, and cadmium.
A related article reported that “More than two-thirds of the beads tested exceed the federal safety limit for lead established for children’s products of 100 parts per million. While Mardi Gras beads are not a children’s product, it is not unusual for children to be exposed to the beads or for them to be used as toys.”
Portable XRF analyzers, which are used by regulatory agencies, manufacturers, and distributors, are helpful in screening consumer products for lead and other toxic metals. By enabling rapid screening of metals, plastics and paints at the receiving dock, in the warehouse, during product assembly, and in finished goods, XRF analyzers greatly reduce the chance that hazardous materials will enter the manufacturing process or accidentally end up on Mardi Gras revelers’ necks.
There is another danger of toxic beads that sometimes gets ignored. We know that many of these beads are imported from China where lead has been widely used in paint, toys, and plastics. We know this raises great concern about hurting a child’s development; but one must also think about the Chinese workers who are melting down and working the plastic that goes into the beads. They are touching the plastic and inhaling the dust fumes all day.
Recently many US importers have taken to actually monitoring the manufacturing sites in person to ensure the safety of the workers and the integrity of the plastic products. If they can convince more Chinese manufacturing facilities to utilize NIR and XRF analyzers, both the workers and consumers would benefit, and the only danger that would result from Mardi Gras necklaces would be getting hit in the head when they are being thrown to the crowds.
Editor’s Note: Mardi Gras 2016 falls on Tuesday, February 9.