Can you imagine having to tell your children not to touch the Christmas tree or to not help with the lights?
Or having to tell them …

Wear gloves!
Wash hands after touching!

Yet this would be the only safe protocol to avoid exposing you and your children to the PVC, flame retardants, phthalates, lead and other heavy metals that are found in artificial Christmas trees, Christmas lights and decorations. This is no way to celebrate Christmas.

Even though the EPA has set the maximum contaminant level of lead at zero, many studies have shown that lead and heavy metals abound in Christmas products. One study by the Ecology Center’s Healthy Stuff.org found that more than two-thirds of the 69 holiday products sold at major retailers contained “at least one heavy metal at levels of concern.”

How Does Exposure Occur?

According to the EPA, “[w]hen a child puts an object containing lead in his or her mouth, the child can suffer seriously from lead poisoning.” It’s not hard to imagine a 2 year-old playing with a string of garland and mouthing it while parents decorate the Christmas tree – one beaded garland tested high for chlorine, bromine and lead according to a 2014 Healthystuff.org study.

But, ingestion is not limited to sticking the actual product in one’s mouth. Just handling the tree, lights and decorations and the subsequent hand-to-mouth contact could lead to ingestion. The other form of exposure is inhalation – breathing in the dust that contains the flame retardants, phthalates, lead and other heavy metals that slough off of the fake Christmas tree, Christmas light cords and Christmas decorations.

To reduce exposure, consider taking the following precautions:

  • Do not allow children to handle the lights, decorations or the fake tree; exposure to heavy metals exacts a greater toll on their developing bodies than on adults.
  • Wear gloves while handling Christmas lights, decorations and artificial trees. Otherwise, wash hands afterwards.
  • Vacuum frequently to clean up the dust around the tree. A HEPA vacuum is a better choice for containing the dust.

How Great is the Risk? Is That All That Matters?

If you could know the exact level of toxic chemicals released from all of your Christmas decorations and measure the actual chemical exposure, it is true that there still is no way of knowing exactly how they impacted your family’s health. And some may argue that contact with Christmas decorations is insignificant compared to year-round exposure to worse offenders such as lead-based paint or drinking water contaminated with heavy metals.

But leaders in the field of children’s environmental health are urging us to think otherwise.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, pediatrician and long-time director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, has been at the forefront of fighting to protect children from environmental toxins. Studies he conducted in the 1970s were the first to show “that lead can cause brain damage to children at levels too low to cause clinically evident signs and symptoms.” Since, his research has shown that lead is not the only problem, many other chemicals can cause severe problems in children. Most especially in children under the age of six.

In his video, “Little Things Matter”, Dr. Bruce Lanphear, Clinician Scientist at the Child & Family Research Institute and another leader in the field of children’s environmental health, shares that tiny, cumulative exposures to chemicals you and your child encounter everyday can derail normal brain development. Emerging studies are pointing to the fact that these seemingly insignificant exposures can not only lower IQ but raise the risk of behavioral conditions including ADD, ADHD and hyperactivity.

And it’s all largely preventable if you have the right perspective. In a 2015 Lohud article Dr. Landrigan stated “The European Union starts with the premise that they have a duty, a moral obligation, to be precautionary, to protect children … And the United States starts out with the premise that chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.”

close-up of little girl holding a Christmas ornament on the tree

If all it takes to cause lead poisoning is one exposure to a highly toxic Christmas decoration, why take a chance and expose your child? And why support a chemical industry that promotes toxic chemicals that are poisoning the environment and impacting health? We propose that it is worth the extra cost, whenever possible, to choose more natural alternatives because every purchase that’s cleaner benefits not just your family, but the world your child lives in.

Whether made of PE (polyethylene) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride), avoid plastic trees – all plastics are made from petroleum and therefore promote dirty fossil fuels. Most are imported from China and many come with a warning label telling consumers to wash hands after handling due to high lead content. And although PVC is considered hazardous waste and should be disposed of in a specific manner, most people will simply throw it away where it will remain in a landfill forever.

A Real Christmas

Here are our suggestions for surrounding yourself with cleaner, safer and healthier decorations that promote nature and reduce the proliferation of toxic chemicals. The more people that choose these options, the more these options become available.

  1. Decorate a tree in your front or backyard.
  2. Rent a living potted tree from the Living Christmas Company.
  3. Buy a living tree and plant it after the holidays for a lasting memory through the years.
  4. Buy a cut Christmas tree, preferably local and organic (to promote an industry that uses less or no pesticides). Green Promise provides a list of organic Christmas tree farms throughout the states. Remember to recycle your tree when the holidays are over. The National Christmas Tree Association offers several ideas for how to do so.
  5. Be nontraditional! There are all sorts of ways to re-envision a Christmas Tree … peg lights onto a wall in the outline of a Christmas tree, draw a Christmas tree on a chalkboard wall and many, many other creative ideas that can be found online.
  6. Be nontraditional, minimalist and super environmentally-conscious by dedicating a tree. There are several programs across the nation where you can support the planting of trees where they are needed most in your community.
  7. Choose Christmas lights that are less toxic. Environmental Lights carries lead-free LED Christmas lights that all comply with the Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) standards.
  8. Choose ornaments that are made out of natural materials: pine cones, paper, felt, wool or wood. Check out Etsy for beautiful, handmade ornaments or get inspired and make your own.
mother and children sitting by fire at Christmas time

So instead of a cookie-cutter, plastic, toxic “tree” and mass-produced decorations and protocols that add stress to the holidays …

Smell the pine needles.
Decorate the tree with the entire family.
Revel in a unique creation.

Enjoy the warmth of the holidays and feel good about the choices you are making for your family and future generations.

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