Are Your Holiday Decorations Toxic?

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The holiday season is in full on swing and even if you didn’t rush to get all your decorations up the minute after Thanksgiving, they’re probably not-so-quietly calling your name from their current storage spot, itching to make an appearance. While it may be the season where everything is “merry and bright,” health and wellness expert and author Sophia Ruan Gushee says there are some dangerous things lurking in your decorations that are both toxic and harmful to the environment. “While the holidays are joyful and born from deep-rooted traditions, many of the festivities can be a source of toxic chemical exposures that can make us feel ill and become sick,” she says. “Luckily, there are easy ways to avoid these toxicants without sacrificing any of the seasonal fun.” So before you deck the halls, consider her season-specific tips.

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Wear Gloves When Handling Lights

If they’re not tangled and if they all still shine, that string of lights is still good, right? Not exactly. Gushee says your lights may have lead in them—more specifically, in the vinyl that insulates the electrical wires. Her advice: Look for lights that comply with the Restriction of Hazardous Substances standard, which limits lead levels to no more than 1,000 parts per million. “Other toxicants used in Christmas lights are most likely not listed on the label,” she adds. “So wear gloves when handling lights, especially old ones.”

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Consider a “Healthier Tree”

Gushee stresses that artificial trees (especially older ones) can contain lead stabilizers, and ingesting lead dust is a high concern, especially for children. “When buying a new artificial tree, look for products made within the United States, as there is less regulation against lead in countries like China, where most trees are manufactured. If you are keeping your old one, make sure that physical contact with the tree is kept at a minimum, and that the surrounding area is cleaned regularly. With live trees, they can bring pesticides into the home. For a healthier tree, buy an organic one, which follows the same USDA standards as organic agricultural crops.” 

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Try a New Tradition

If you’re willing to explore a new tradition, consider buying a small potted tree or large plant that can serve as your “Christmas tree” or “Hanukkah bush” year after year. “This circumvents the annual wasteful process of cutting down live young trees to toss them to the curb a few weeks later. Plants like Philodendrons grow large in size, are easy to care for and actually remove certain harmful toxins from the air. It’s truly a gift that keeps on giving!”

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Rethink Candles

“Candles are a classic way to add elegance to holiday décor, but burning candles releases harmful chemicals into the air, such as benzene, formaldehyde and soot, which all act as respiratory irritants and are linked to cancer,” Gushee says. “Conventional candles are also made with the ingredient ‘fragrance,’ which can contain endocrine disrupting chemicals and other chemical toxicants. For a healthier candle, choose one made of pure, non-toxic beeswax. Better yet, add holiday scent to your home by boiling cloves and cinnamon sticks on the stove or hanging fresh, organic greenery.”

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Avoid Artificial Scents

Candles aren’t the only things in your house that have a fragrance. “Does that artificial wreath smell like pine, or that holiday centerpiece smell like freshly baked cookies? That indicates the presence of fragrance,” Gushee explains. “Since it’s nearly impossible to know what chemicals are present in each item’s unique ‘fragrance’—that information is often proprietary, so businesses don’t have to disclose each ingredient—it’s best to avoid unnecessary scented items. Even more risky are sprays with fragrance since you can inhale those sprayed chemical formulas.”

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Think Twice About What You Are Burning

Toxins can be emitted from combustion, and Gushee says they are linked to a number of adverse health effects. “These chemicals can be inhaled once present in the home, and the developing bodies of children are especially vulnerable. It’s best to be mindful what’s burning.” (Think stovetops, fireplaces and candles.)

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Opt for Healthier Wrapping Papers

Say it isn’t so! “Decorative wrapping paper that was manufactured in countries with relatively loose environmental regulations, such as China, may contain toxic ingredients like lead, cadmium, synthetic inks, chlorine, and chromium,” Gushee says. “These chemicals can be transferred to children who may put the paper in their mouths or can be released into the air and inhaled when burned. To avoid unhealthier varieties of wrapping paper, avoid paper with metal foil if you don’t know what country it came from. Also, never burn your wrapping paper!”

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