The Dark Side of Mardi Gras’ Most Beloved Tradition

Will you be celebrating Mardi Gras today, or are you more concerned about the environmental and ethical impact of 250 million pounds of plastic beads imported from China?

A Christian holiday with origins in Europe, Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday” in French, is recognized as a day of indulgence before the beginning of the penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. It is believed that the festivities of Mardi Gras can trace their roots to the Lupercalia, an orgy held in mid-February in ancient Rome to welcome the arrival of spring.

In England, where I grew up, the day is referred to as Shrove Tuesday, from the word shrive, meaning “confess.” On this day, we ate pancakes, using up all the flour, butter and eggs in the household. Beginning the next day, Ash Wednesday, and continuing for the 40 days of Lent, good Christians are supposed to fast, or at least to give up something they enjoy: candy, cigarettes and alcohol being the most common choices.

The traditional Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, however, are quite different from those in my homeland.

Carnival and Mardi Gras

First, there’s the tradition of Carnival, between Twelfth Night on January 6 and Ash Wednesday, which spread from Rome across Europe and later to the Americas.

The Europeans brought Carnival customs to New Orleans, and Creole society was soon masking and dancing at private balls while costumed revelers roamed the streets. The year 1827 marked the first documented parade of masked revelers in New Orleans.

Over time, New Orleans has become famous for its over-the-top parades and parties for Mardi Gras, the last day of the Carnival season. The festivities have continued to expand, but its purpose has stayed the same: cast cares aside and celebrate in grandiose fashion.

250 Million Pounds of Toxic Beads

But there is a dark underside to the Mardi Gras festivities.

Every year, an estimated 25 million pounds of plastic beads make their way to New Orleans.

The beads are central to the ritualized gift exchanges of Mardi Gras season, a multi-day series of parties and parades that brings an estimated million revelers to the streets for what is sometimes called “the Greatest Free Show on Earth.”

Members of Mardi Gras “krewes,” the private social organizations that stage the parades, spend thousands to purchase the shiny baubles before flinging them to crowds who beg for them with the exclamation, “Throw me something, mister!”

These beads from China are made from toxic waste the U.S. ships off, and are likely to end up in the bodies, landfills and water supply of the citizens of New Orleans.

As reports:

“There isn’t a system in the body that isn’t affected by lead,” said Dr. Howard Mielke, a Tulane toxicologist who has been studying lead levels in the city for many years.

Dr. Mielke, along with the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based non-profit group and Dr. Holly Groh, a founder of VerdiGras in New Orleans, studied beads from China. They found lead and an array of toxic and cancer-causing metals and chemicals, including bromine, chlorine, cadmium, arsenic, tin, phthalates and mercury.

Add that to the lead the beads pick up from the city ground and hands — especially those of children — that end up in mouths, and there can be permanent brain damage.

At least one of the harmful chemicals was found in 90 percent of the beads at levels higher than allowed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“Basically, if you have lead exposure early on in childhood, it does change the ability throughout life,” Dr. Mielke said.

Non-Toxic Mardi Gras Beads

Now there’s an alternative.

The environmental group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has created Zombeads. Those are beads made locally from Crowley rice, NOLA wood shutters, coffee burlap voodoo dolls and ceramic doubloons.

As Anne Rolfes, president of Zombeads and Louisiana Bucket Brigade explains, “Mardi Gras beads are a perfect example of a situation where we really don’t need to use chemicals to have a good time.”

Yes, it’s possible to enjoy Mardi Gras without importing toxic beads from China!

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Love This? Never Miss Another Story.


Carrie-Anne Brown
Carrie-Anne Brown9 months ago

thanks for sharing :)

Oleg Kobetz
Oleg Kobetz1 years ago


Jennifer H.
Jennifer H.1 years ago

My question is: Why in the heck are we still importing toxic crap from China?

Aud nordby
Aud nordby1 years ago


Nils Anders Lunde


Natasha Salgado
Natasha Salgado1 years ago

Everything has a dark side these days. I'm just thrilled that there isn't any animals used in this event.

Nimue P.
Nimue Pendragon1 years ago

Glad they have made an alternative to those nasty beads. We have pancake Day here.

JL A.1 years ago


Karen R.
Karen Ryan1 years ago

I'm confused. I thought there were regulations in effect to prevent importing toys or jewelry high in lead or made with toxic chemicals.

Angela Ray
Angela Ray1 years ago

I don't like anything about mardi gras!