Keep It Real This Holiday Season: Tips for Avoiding Toxics and Staying Green

Family in a Christmas tree farm

Toxics in our holiday products may be the most unwelcome guests in our homes this time of year. Find out where they may be lurking and how to avoid them.

Décor

For the second consecutive year, HealthyStuff.org, a project of the Ecology Center, found a multitude of toxic chemicals in holiday décor, such as light strings, artificial wreaths and greenery, wall and window decorations, figurines, and beaded holiday garlands. Many contain lead, brominated flame retardants, antimony, and tin compounds. Sixty nine products from local, major retailers were tested. More than two-thirds contained at least one hazardous chemical of concern.

HealthyStuff.org notes that heavy metals and other additives are commonly found in seasonal holiday décor. In particular, many inexpensive home decorating items contain flexible vinyl (PVC plastic) components. Vinyl routinely contains multiple chemical hazards that are linked to asthma, reproductive problems, developmental and learning disabilities, hormone problems, and cancer. For the full study results, visit HealthyStuff.org.

The researchers suggest avoiding:

  • Beaded garlands that look like long strands of plastic Mardi Gras beads (multiple toxics).
  • Artificial greenery on wreaths and decorations as they are usually vinyl and may contain phthalates, flame retardants, and/or organotins.
  • Figurines that may contain lead in either metal or plastic parts.

Instead of artificial swags, garlands and wreaths, opt for ones made from real evergreen branches, mistletoe or holly. Visit a local Christmas tree farm, your local farmers’ market or garden center, or even craft shows to find fresh-cut greenery. Or collect pine cones and branches to create your own decorations.

Lights

Electrical cords, like those connecting holiday light strands, are made from vinyl. Lead is the most commonly used stabilizer since it increases flexibility, prevents cracking, provides fire-retardant properties, and stabilizes the color. However the plastic can degrade and release lead. Check for label warnings; an example is “Warning: This product contains chemicals including lead, known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.” Outside the state of California, however, there is no way to know whether any given light string contains lead.

Besides lead, HealthyStuff.org found indications of flame-retardants, phthalates and organotins in light strands.

  • Don’t let children handle any light strings.
  • Wear gloves or wash hands after handling.

Getting a Green Christmas Tree

Artificial Christmas trees, like other holiday decorations, are most often made of vinyl and contain lead and/or other toxics. The EPA warns that “…dangerous lead exposures can occur” with artificial Christmas trees that are at least 9 years old as the vinyl degrades under normal conditions. The authors of a study published in the Journal for Environmental Health found “…while the average artificial Christmas tree does not present a significant exposure risk, in the worst-case scenarios a substantial health risk to young children is quite possible.”

Real trees clean the air and provide habitat for wildlife while they grow. Most harvested trees are replaced with up to three seedlings the following spring, according to Make It a Real Michigan Christmas. After the holidays, real trees can be recycled, reused or composted. Here are some tips to find the most sustainably-grown trees:

  • Buy locally grown. Check farmers’ markets or visit Christmas Tree Farm Network for a comprehensive list of real Christmas tree farms by state. In southeast Michigan, visit:
    • Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm in Oxford. Environmentally friendly practices. Hand pick and cut your own tree. Live, potted Christmas trees also available. Visit with Santa on the weekends.
    • Trim Pines Farm in Holly. Environmentally verified farm. Choose-and-cut or ready-cut trees. Visits with Santa, horse-drawn hayrides, real reindeer.
  • Avoid Fraser Firs. According to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, “Of all the fir species grown…Fraser fir is the most susceptible to…pests” and therefore requires the heaviest use of pesticides.
  • Ask the farmer about his or her growing practices. Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm mixes the varieties of trees, as well as the ages of the trees on a plot, which helps prevent insect infestations. A variety of sizes in the field creates better air circulation, thus preventing fungal disease. Fewer pests and diseases mean fewer pesticides.

Green Aromatics

The natural decorative greenery mentioned above will also release fresh scents into your home. Other ways to bring festive smells to your indoor environment:

  • Orange and clove pomanders. Simply poke small holes into an orange (knitting needles or thin nails work well) and fill the holes with cloves. Hang with a ribbon.
  • Boil cinnamon sticks, cloves or a dried-up pomander on the stove (do not leave unattended).
  • Rosemary topiaries or Meyer lemon trees fill a room with invigorating aromas.
  • Bake! Whether made from scratch or a box, pies, muffins and other baked goods always make a house smell inviting.
  • Burn beeswax candles. The paraffin wax variety releases a carcinogenic compound when burned. Avoid candles scented with artificial fragrances.

Green Giving

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s the average American generates 25 percent more waste per week than during the rest of the year. For tips on simplifying the holidays and your gift giving, try:

– Melissa Cooper Sargent, Environmental Health Educator with LocalMotionGreen at Ecology Center. For more information, you can email her at melissas@ecocenter.org  or visit http://www.ecocenter.org/lmg

1 Response to “Keep It Real This Holiday Season: Tips for Avoiding Toxics and Staying Green”


  1. 1 Anonymous December 18, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Very interesting! Not only helpful information, but great resources too. Thank you!


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