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    Beware of Lead in Christmas Trees and Lights

    by Christopher Gavigan

    If you’ve been shopping for holiday lights this season, you may have noticed a warning label on some of them stating that they may contain lead. The warning is required by the State of California’s Proposition 65. This law requires a warning label on any product containing a substance known to cause cancer or birth defects that is sold in California. Lead is listed as a carcinogen, but it’s more widely associated with neurological damage.

    Wire coating and cords are usually made of PVC plastic that may contain lead. Lead is used in PVC for several reasons. For wires and cords, lead makes the plastic more flexible and reduces the risk of fire. Lead is also used in many PVC products to stabilize the color. Lead in PVC products can disintegrate into lead-laced dust.

    The labels began appearing on holiday lights, as well as on electronic equipment and cords on other consumer products such as hairdryers, after a number of lawsuits were filed by an environmental advocacy organization in California.

    The amount of lead in the lights and other consumer products with warning labels may vary considerably. It is not clear if the amount of lead that is released poses a risk to human health. Some tests show that lead could come off in the hands. Note that nearly all appliance cords are covered with PVC that contains lead.

    We recommend the following:

    • Do not allow children to handle holiday lights!
    • Adults should wash hands thoroughly after handling the lights.
    • Avoid lights made in China and other foreign countries, where there are no restrictions against the use of lead in consumer products. Lights made in the U.S. are likely to contain smaller amounts of lead, especially in the coating.
    • Do not assume that holiday lights that do not bear the warning label are lead-free. It is possible that the lights are not sold in California. California is the only state that requires the warning label. Older lights that have not been labeled may also contain lead.

    Artificial Christmas trees are also made of PVC and could contain lead as well. Trees may shed lead-laced dust, which may cover branches or shower gifts and the floor below the tree.

    Contact the manufacturer to ask if your tree contains lead. Or have it tested. You can get information on how to order a test kit and learn more from the Community Environmental Health Resource Center. Also, The National Lead Information Center (NLIC) provides a list of EPA-certified labs near you. Do-it-yourself tests, available at hardware stores, can detect high levels of lead, but may not clue you into low levels.

    If you cannot ensure that your tree is lead-free and you have children in your home, we suggest that you dispose of the artificial tree and purchase a new tree. At the very least, keep small children away from the tree and only put gifts under the tree the same day you will be opening them (to reduce lead dust on wrapping paper). Place the tree away from sunlight and heat to reduce PVC degradation (which leads to the release of lead).

    The most environmentally friendly choices are potted trees that can be planted in the spring or live trees raised on sustainably managed farms, or organic Christmas trees. If you need an artificial tree due to allergies or some other reason, look for a lead-free tree.

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