Toxic Chemicals Found in Holiday Beads

  • Plastic Mardi Gras beads and beaded holiday garland tested by the Ecology Center had high levels of lead and other toxic substances. Photo: Courtesy

December 13, 2013

While you’re decking the halls this holiday season, you might want to take a second look at the decorations you’re hanging.  A new report from a consumer watchdog site shows high levels of hazardous chemicals in some sparkly, beaded garland.  

The report by and the Ecology Center looked at plastic Mardi Gras beads and holiday beaded garland purchased from stores like Lowes and Walgreens. 

60 percent of the beads and garlands contained high levels of lead, more than 100 parts per million--that’s the maximum level of lead the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act allows for children’s products.

The study examined beads with an electron microscope, and also found bromine and chlorine under their shiny veneers. These chemicals are common in flame retardants. Researcher Jeff Gearhart says they don’t know for certain where manufacturers get the materials in the beads, but that the mix of chemicals they found probably comes from electronic waste, or e-waste, from products like circuit boards.

"There is a big push for trying to reduce costs in manufacturing these as cheaply as possible, so then you end up with these low-value waste plastics actually getting into new product production chains," Gearhart says.

Gearhart says in this case, recycling one product for use in another is not the green thing to do.  Chemicals found in the waste and beads have been linked in other studies to hormone disruption and neurological disorders. 

Gearhart says just because the beads are solid doesn’t mean these chemicals are trapped.  They can be released through exposure to sunlight and water.  He recommends consumers wash their hands after handling these plastic, beaded items, and keep them out of mouths.  For safer holiday festooning, Gearhart says people should reach for natural alternatives, like wood or glass beads.