By Kate Stevens
City workers just pulled 93,000 pounds of Mardi Gras beads from storm drains. These same beads can be contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead– and let’s be honest, beads that almost every New Orleans child has put in their mouths countless times.
[People] don’t want the same old plastic throws they can get at any parade. “I have found over the last few years, these plastic beads, these big ones that used to be so flashy, nobody really wants them, you throw?” says Mary Anne Gracia, a Krewe of Iris member, 63, of Metairie. “They’ll drop to the ground. They want something different now.”
Garcia also finds it wasteful that so many of these unwanted plastic throws end up in the gutter, the storm drains and the landfill. That’s why for Mardi Gras 2019, Garcia has purchased specialty throws from Atlas Handmade Beads, a New Orleans company that sells necklaces and bracelets made of recycled magazine paper from women in Uganda.
She has purchased fewer plastic throws as a result and hopes these unique, colorful necklaces from Atlas are ones people will actually wear as keepsakes. “I’d rather have less to throw, but what I’m throwing people want,” says Garcia.
Garcia is part of a growing movement to make Mardi Gras more environmentally friendly, less wasteful and with fewer of the plastic throws and toys that studies have shown contain harmful substances like lead and chemical flame retardants.
“It’s not just about a cultural shift,” says Katrina Brees, founder of Kolossos, a sub-krewe using bicycles as homemade floats and whose riders pass out artisan throws and edible New Orleans-based snacks. “It’s actually about a toxic health hazard, and a lot of people are beginning to understand that. [Beads are] shifting from being a symbol of happiness to a symbol of sadness and people feel that.”
And there are plenty of beads.
Twenty-five million pounds, or 12,500 tons, of them are thrown during the Carnival season from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras, according to a 2013 report on potential lead exposure from Mardi Gras beads and parade route environments.
“This is a time when we certainly have to think about the planet that we’re living on and the impact parades have on the city of New Orleans,” says Howard Mielke, a professor in the pharmacology department of the Tulane University School of Medicine and co-author of the lead exposure report.
“The parades are wonderful. I love them. We just have to make sure to find a way to make them kinder to the environment and to the health of our children.”
Plastic beads left in the gutter as garbage become an environmental nightmare.
In January 2018, the city of New Orleans announced it had retrieved 7.2 million pounds of trash and debris, including 93,000 pounds of Mardi Gras beads, from city catch basins during a four-month cleaning project along a five block stretch of St. Charles Avenue.
These harmful plastics can work their way to our waterways and oceans where they can affect animal and plant life and ultimately humans, says Mielke.
And, every year, between 4,500 and 8,000 tons of trash is collected during Mardi Gras just in the French Quarter, according to VerdiGras, a volunteer group seeking to encourage a more green, more sustainable Mardi Gras celebration.
While the amount of trash Mardi Gras creates is obvious to parade-goers, the fact that many plastic throws contain lead levels exceeding federal safety guidelines is less obvious.
This hidden danger can be toxic for children who may place the beads in their mouths or pick up beads from the dirty ground which also has been proven to have high lead levels.
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So what’s inherently harmful with the plastic in Mardi Gras throws?
These plastic throws contain small amounts of chemical toxins, according to a 2013 report produced by Healthystuff.organd the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based non-profit, environmental organization, in collaboration with VerdiGras.
“As a physician mom, I always felt like the beads smelled funny,” says Dr. Holly Gore Groh, founder of VerdiGras, and a New Orleans mother of four children. “We tried to keep them out of my children’s mouths.”
Groh says she knew in her gut something was wrong with the makeup of the beads. So she contacted the research director of Healthystuff.orgwhere scientists soon analyzed the Mardi Gras beads Groh provided.
Scientists screened 87 Mardi Gras bead necklaces, bracelets and other accessories and found more than 60 percent of the products tested, or 56 of 87, had concentrations of lead above 100 ppm, or parts per million.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission limits lead in children’s products to 100 ppm, while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 40 ppm as a limit, the report says.
The problem is that the CPSC doesn’t consider Mardi Gras throws as toys, even though children attend the parades, and therefore the commission has refused to regulate the production of them, says Groh.
The report also said more than half of the products tested suggested the use of brominated flame retardants or chlorinated flame retardants. Flame retarded plastics from a variety of sources, including electronic waste, are likely being recycled into bead production, the report concluded.
These Mardi Gras beads are produced mostly overseas in China and are melted down from plastics like computer boards which also contain toxic endocrine disruptors, say Groh. These chemical disruptors can affect a child’s developing hormonal system although the effects cannot be currently measured and won’t be known for many years, she says.
Lead has also been found in plastic Mardi Gras throws, according to Mielke’s report on lead contamination. The beads can have harmful effects if a child places the beads in their mouths, especially if picked up directly off the ground.
A known neurotoxin, lead can cause irreversible brain damage, says Groh.
“Even with these apparently small amounts of lead, given the mass of beads being thrown by krewes during Carnival, the total amount of lead hitting the streets becomes large,” Mielke’s report says.
But beads aren’t the only culprit behind the city’s lead contamination.
Lead accumulation from lead additives in gasoline and lead‐based paints are the highest in older communities surrounding the city’s CBD and decrease as you leave the city center. Even the soil along Mardi Gras parade routes has been contaminated from decades of use of lead additives to gasoline, the report says.
If beads hit the ground, kick up street dust contaminated with lead, and are picked up by a child, the child could be harmed if the beads are placed in their mouth. “It’s a double whammy for a child,” Mielke says. “They’re getting the dust from the road as well as possible contamination from the beads directly.”
What can we do?
Click through to part two- the up-and-coming alternatives to Mardi Gras beads
Last Mardi Gras, volunteers with the Young Leadership Council, Republic Services, and the Arc of Greater New Orleans helped collect 10,000 cans and bottles to be recycled and 1,600 pounds of plastic throws. The throws were donated to the Arc of Greater New Orleans, an organization benefiting adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
The ArcGNO creates wage-earning jobs for its participants by collecting, sorting and repackaging Mardi Gras beads and stuffed animals.
So what’s next in efforts for a more sustainable Mardi Gras?
For future Mardi Gras parades, Groh says she would love to see just one green float with local and sustainable throws. And she thinks it will happen. “The tide is changing,” Groh says.
Tips to Limit Lead Exposure During Mardi Gras:
- Use hand wipes to clean children’s hands before they eat and after picking up beads from the ground.
- Wash and rinse any beads picked up from the street or dirt along parade routes before allowing children to play with them.
- Once home, change clothes that may have been exposed to dirt along the parade route.
Alternatives to Plastics in Parades
Not only are plastic Mardi Gras beads toxic, but they also have become a solid waste issue, with tons of the discarded, unwanted plastic beads littering the streets, clogging storm drains, and polluting local rivers and the Gulf of Mexico.
It's tempting to pick them up from the ground – you want a keepsake of your first Mardi Gras experience, after all. But this is actually frowned upon among locals. Picking up beads from the floor is considered bad luck in New Orleans. The streets also get rather unsanitary during Carnival season.What is the meaning of the beads at Mardi Gras? ›
Beads used on Mardi Gras (known as Shrove Tuesday in some regions) are purple, green, and gold, with these three colors containing the Christian symbolism of justice, faith, and power, respectively.Are Mardi Gras beads worth anything? ›
Beads can run anywhere from $25 to $40 dollars per case. Some beads are small and colorful, while others are large and elaborate. Some specialty beads have the krewe emblem on them (those have to be specially ordered) or some other decorative items that make them more costly.Why do they give out beads in New Orleans? ›
In 1875, Louisiana Governor Henry Warmoth signed the Mardi Gras Act making it a state-recognized holiday. The tradition of throwing glass beads to onlookers began in the 1880s, with krewes on their floats wishing to favor celebrants with unique party favors.Do they still throw beads in New Orleans? ›
The biggest and most famous Mardi Gras celebrations are in New Orleans, Louisiana, with people travelling from all over to gather and party. One of the traditions of the festival is the handing out of brightly coloured Mardi Gras beads.Do girls flash for beads in New Orleans? ›
No, most people get beads at parades just by waving their hands. We aren't going to say flashing doesn't happen, but it's not as prevalent as "Girls Gone Wild" would like you to think.What can I do with unwanted beads? ›
- Make Earrings. I love earring patterns. ...
- Use As Accent Beads. ...
- Create Beaded Fringe. ...
- Make A Bead Mix. ...
- Create A Bead Soup. ...
- Make A Repair Kit. ...
- Give Leftover Beads Away.
Beads and Throws
The throwing of beads and fake jewels, from parade floats to those watching down below, is thought to have started in the late 19th century, when a carnival king threw fake strands of gems and rings to his “loyal subjects” sometime in the 1890s.
Contrary to popular belief, public nudity is illegal in New Orleans. (Many a bared breast does not a lawful act make.) You can be arrested for flashing, but you probably won't be disbarred for it because it's not a crime of moral turpitude, and it doesn't reflect on your propensity for truthfulness.
- Know your grading terms. ...
- Examine the beads in person. ...
- Use a jeweler's loupe to inspect the beads' quality. ...
- Look for rich color and brilliance. ...
- Know how to spot fakes. ...
- Consult a qualified jeweler.
So what are "throws?" Well, they are exactly what they sound like - items that krewe members on floats throw to parade-goers as the floats pass by! Throws often include doubloons, beads, cups, homemade trinkets, toys and more!What do beads symbolize? ›
Beads generally symbolize positive things including protection, union, growth, good luck, etc.What should you not wear in New Orleans? ›
Cobblestones and heels are not a good match and can make walking challenging and cause a fall. They are not the best option to wear anywhere in New Orleans, much less down Bourbon Street or walking through the French Quarter.Can I wear jeans in New Orleans? ›
New Orleans is a pretty laid-back city regarding dressing code. Unless you attend a special event, upscale restaurant, wedding, or Mardi Gras Ball – you can dress pretty casually. Cotton Dresses, Shorts, Tank tops, and jeans are all perfectly fine to wear in New Orleans.Is it safe to walk in New Orleans at night? ›
New Orleans is safe at night, depending on where you are. If you are in the bad neighborhoods and areas that we went over in the above sections, then no, it is by no means safe. However, the areas around major tourist attractions like the National WWII Museum, the French Quarter, St.Where can I donate beads UK? ›
Please remember to send all of your donated beads to the Beads of Courage UK Headquarters for distribution. You can request that donations go to your nearest member hospital if you like, but remember that there are a lot of kids that need your beads who aren't near beadmakers and they would love to have your beads too.What are the benefits of beads? ›
Fine Motor Skills: Grasping: Various sizes of beads promote different grasps. Larger beads often promote the "3-jaw chuck" grasp, similar to holding a large pencil or marker. Smaller beads encourage children to use their pincer grasp, thus strengthening the small muscles of their hands.Why do people carry beads in their hands? ›
Tesbih, also known as worry beads, are also often used to relieve stress. The way you let the beads slip through your fingers has a rhythmic yet calming effect. Materials used to make prayer beads vary. They can be crafted from wood, bone, amber, gold, silver or many kinds of precious stones.What culture started beading? ›
Many of the earliest examples were found Kenya and Turkey. The earliest bead dates are debated between 300,000-100,000 B.C.E. and 43,000-38,000 B.C.E. So old! Early beadwork used thread to attach beads together.
The art of making glass beads probably originated in Venice, Italy. In any case, we know that this area had a flourishing industry in the production of beads by the early 14th century. from there the production of beads moved to other parts of Europe, the most notable being Bohemia, France, England, and Holland.Is there a red light district in New Orleans? ›
NEW ORLEANS — Storyville in New Orleans may be the most famous American red light district, but little of it survives.Is public urination legal in New Orleans? ›
Urinating in public is a federal offense.Are blue lights illegal in Louisiana? ›
No person shall sell a dashboard, hood, vehicle front grill, or vehicle roof mounted emergency light that emits a blue glow to any person.How do you know if bead is original? ›
You can try rubbing the beads a bit to a cotton or tissue and see if there are color residues. High quality beads are perfectly colored and not made with cheap paints or dyes.How can you tell how old a bead is? ›
- Can you see a seam? ...
- What sort of texture can you see? ...
- Is there a gloss, sheen, or other shiny element to the bead that could help to indicate its origin? ...
- Is there any part of the bead's coloring or finish worn away?
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a glass bead and a crystal or stone bead. By rubbing the bead against your teeth, you can feel the surface. A real stone or crystal will feel gritty and textured. A glass bead being rubbed on your teeth will feel smooth and have no imperfections on its surface.Why do they call them floats? ›
They are so named because the first floats were decorated barges on the River Thames for the Lord Mayor's Show.What happens to the floats after the parade? ›
After the parade, floats are stripped to their chassis. Structural steel elements are reused where possible; organic materials and sculptural steel are recycled.Who owns beads by the dozen? ›
“Port NOLA has provided consistent service and reliability with scheduling and container arrivals,” says Beads By the Dozen owner Dan Kelly.
Although the polymers used to manufacture water beads are non-toxic, the beads can absorb fluid and expand in the intestinal tract after they are swallowed, and this can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening intestinal blockage.Are magic beads toxic? ›
The beads aren't toxic, so if swallowed, they aren't poisonous. However, not all children are lucky enough for the beads to pass through their system. Dr. Cribbs says to remember, the smaller the child, the larger the bead, the more likely the bead is to get stuck in the child.Are the beads in stuffed animals toxic? ›
Beads found inside stuffed animals, or used as embelishments for the eyes or nose, are hazardous to young children.Are crystal beads toxic? ›
Like any glass, the composition of these beads can vary. Some glass beads have been found to contain toxic metals like lead and arsenic. This is a concern because the beads are typically pulverized during use and generate dust.What happens if you eat aqua beads? ›
Water beads are designed to expand in water. So, when ingested, they can expand enough in a few hours to block the intestine or airway of a small child. If the water bead does not pass through the digestive system, surgery is needed to remove them.What happens if water beads are swallowed? ›
If the beads are swallowed, it is expected that they will grow in size as a result of the water that we have in our bodies. The manufacturers, however, point out that an Orbeez bead will grow only up to 7 mm in the intestines, which means it can safely pass through the digestive tract.How long should water beads sit in water? ›
Allow 6-8 hours for the water beads to absorb the water in the bin. This time will allow the water beads to grow in size.What happens when a child swallows a bead? ›
Fortunately, many objects swallowed by mistake — especially small, rounded ones like beads — will travel harmlessly down the child's throat and pass through the digestive tract until they come out the other end in the stool.What happens if my kid eats Orbeez? ›
All genuine Orbeez are non-toxic and analysis has shown that if a child swallows Orbeez, they pass through the digestive system without issues.Do water bead guns hurt? ›
Orbeez are squishy but can cause injury when shot out of an airsoft gun. Since the gel balls are essentially water pellets, some people have taken to freezing them to make the impact more painful.
—Do the smell test.
Toxic softeners in plastic often have that “beach ball” smell. Strong fragrances and perfumes can provoke allergies or asthma. —Lean toward products that are fair-made from natural materials: organic cotton-stuffed animals and wooden blocks, for example.
Our data and empirical evidence prove conclusively that Orbeez are not dangerous if swallowed. They pass through the digestive tract and are expelled naturally without causing harm. They are non-toxic, do not bind together and do not break down in the digestive process.Can stuffed animals protect you? ›
According to Psychology Today, stuffed animals are seen as transitional objects that help young children learn important sensory and emotional skills. A teddy bear can be a tool to help prevent separation anxiety while acting as a “friend” to keep them feeling safe and secure.How can you tell if a crystal bead is real? ›
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a glass bead and a crystal or stone bead. By rubbing the bead against your teeth, you can feel the surface. A real stone or crystal will feel gritty and textured. A glass bead being rubbed on your teeth will feel smooth and have no imperfections on its surface.Are crystal beads safe to wear? ›
It's understandable that you could have a fear about the lead oxide within crystals. Fortunately, lead oxide is completely safe to wear in crystal jewelry. However, we do not suggest that you ingest your crystals for this reason!