Disclaimer Pt. 1: This article isn’t meant to fear monger or sensationalize, it’s simply meant to raise awareness of a growing problem in our community, one that has been researched but is still not widely discussed by the citizens of New Orleans.
It’s the best time of year in the Big Easy! The jazz bands are playing, the floats are chugging along the parade route, and the good times are most definitely rolling. But something sinister is lurking just below the surface - literally.
It’s a potential cancer and birth defect causing, and kidney/liver/brain damaging substance that is stored in our blood, tissues, and brain. It’s in our soil, our water, and our… Mardi Gras beads? Yes, you read that right, our Mardi Gras beads. But what is it, exactly?
Of course, not all the lead in our resources is coming from Mardi Gras beads; lead dust can be generated by metal work or can leach into the soil or groundwater from old lead paint or old fuel. But with over 25 MILLION POUNDS of beads being dumped on the folks (residents and tourists) of New Orleans every year, there’s no denying the ecological impact of this tradition. “Throws” haven’t always been a part of the celebration, though. In fact, this tradition is said to have began as recently as the 1970’s (though some sources claim it began in the early 1910’s). So, with that in mind, we must consider if this is something worth continuing, or if we want to see this change.
Personally, I’d like to see a change, and in some ways the shift is already happening. Some Krewes have begun choosing more environmentally friendly options to pass out and some companies have created organic, biodegradable beads. Some individuals have returned to the old favored tradition of glass beads and some have reduced their throw allowance overall. But is that sufficient to solve the problem? Probably not. With more than 60% of beads from 2013 testing positive for lead and chlorine/bromine (indicating the presence of a toxic flame retardant), reducing the number of beads going around simply isn’t going to be enough.
But why does it matter? Well, lead has been linked to a variety of health problems ranging from mild fatigue to fatal poisoning. It’s especially dangerous for children and pregnant women, as it can have acute neurotoxic effects on young people. And if you ever walked New Orleans’ streets during the festivities, you know you’ve seen a child or two with beads dangling out of their tiny mouths. But it’s not just New Orleanians who are suffering at the hands of lead. There’s two main groups I’d like to focus on for the remainder of this article.
The Environment & Its Non-Human Inhabitants
It’s time we talk for those who can’t talk for themselves. The animals and plants who live and grow in New Orleans (and other lead affected locations) are suffering and changing. One prominent, local, and well researched example is New Orleans’ population of Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos). Bird populations are reliable bioindicators and interact heavily with soil and ground water, so they are a great study system for examining heavy metal uptake and its impact. In this case, researchers found that mockingbirds showed significantly heightened aggression in areas where lead concentrations are higher. This could have a number of behavioral repercussions for the species (discussed more in depth in the linked article, and is still being studied). Additionally, studies in California have shown that cattle and poultry are highly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which could impact the sizable agricultural industry in New Orleans’ surrounding areas, if the information is transferable. From a broader perspective, almost 10 million pounds of beads make their way into landfills every year, but they don’t all get there the same way. Some are pulled out of storm drains (estimated to be almost 100,000 pounds a year), some are left on the ground or in the street, some are thrown away by tourists with overweight bags at the airport, or locals who can’t be bothered to drive to a bead recycling center, and some never get tossed in the first place. All that plastic is devastating for the environment and even if we stopped the practice right now, we’d likely be feeling the effects for thousands of years to come.
The Factory Workers Creating the Beads
Not only are these individuals subject to toxic levels of lead for hours on end every day, they are underpaid and often work in horrific conditions. They are mislead about the purpose of the beads, being told they’re made for American higher-ups or royalty. They’re told the faster the work the more they get paid, and many of them are only teenagers whose brains are still developing and who may be particularly susceptible to the dangerous effects of lead. They are fined for innocent mistakes and see only a fraction of the money made off the sale of beads. It’s a sickeningly manipulative and abusive practice, the outsourcing of Carnival beads, and for some reason not many people are talking about it.
As harmless as this Mardi Gras tradition may appear, throwing beads has tremendous ethical, public health, and environmental repercussions that have been ignored by many for long enough.
Carnival season is an economically, socially, and culturally important time in Louisiana (and elsewhere, too), but that can’t be our excuse for wreaking havoc on our children and our environment. We must find a way around this issue, must eliminate the millions of pounds of refuse heading to a landfill as we speak. I love Mardi Gras, it’s one of my favorite holidays and it’s an unbelievable, unforgettable experience; but if there was some way to reduce it’s impact on our city, I know I would enjoy it 10 times more. I think that together we can come up with a solution! I’m putting my thinking cap on right now… Are you?
Disclaimer Pt. 2: Much of the information in this article came the sources hyperlinked within the post. Not every piece of information that is "cited" is hyperlinked, but all information can be found within the articles linked throughout. I also collected information through local’s anecdotes and informally from researchers at Tulane, including talks given by my Masters advisor and fellow labbies. I have no stake in the ongoing research on lead’s toxicity and prevalence in our city, I am simply interested in the issue!