Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
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NEW ORLEANS -- 'Made in NOLA' -- that's where health and environmental experts want Mardi Gras throws to come from.

They say beads from China are made from toxic waste the U.S. ships off, and they're concerned it ends up in our bodies, landfills and water supply.

After the parade is over, doctors say the health hazard is just beginning.

'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.

Lead exposure, from leaded gasoline and wheel weight and paint of the past in urban areas, has been scientifically linked to learning and behavior problems.

'The exposures that were taking place in the population 22 years ago are influencing the violence rates today. It has enormous impact,' said Mielke, explaining years of his and other independent scientific data.

The environmental group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade is so concerned it sells Zombeads. Those are throws locally made from Crowley rice, NOLA wood shutters, coffee burlap voodoo dolls and ceramic doubloons.

The beads are handcrafted of hardened paper, supplying jobs in Africa.

'Mardi Gras beads are a perfect example of a situation where we really don't need to use chemicals to have a good time,' explained Anne Rolfes, president of Zombeads and Louisiana Bucket Brigade, both non-profit organizations.

They are at a higher cost than Chinese beads but on par with higher-end throws krewes buy, and they are wearable year-round.

The Krewe of Tucks captain said he sees children put beads in their mouths, and it's time for all krewes to change.

'You're doing something great for the kids. You're doing something economic for them and you're getting a special throw for your parade,' said Lloyd Frischhertz, Krewe of Tucks captain.

'Somehow we've got to get a handle on this, because it affects the future generations,' said Dr. Mielke.

The doctors say beads are safer when they are new, and more dangerous as they begin to deteriorate over time.

They recommend you wash your hands after handling them. Parents should take baby wipes to the parades and use them on children's hands after they handle them.

Beads should never go in the mouth. People who handle them for a long time should wear gloves.

For more on Zombeads, click here. For more on the study, click here.

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