Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Ethylene Oxide (EtO) is a colorless gas with a slightly sweet odor. It is used in making a variety of products including antifreeze, plastics, detergents, and adhesives. It is also used as a sterilizer for medical equipment and others that cannot be sterilized by steam. Ethylene Oxide can be found in the air surrounding industrial factories including chemical manufacturers and sterilizers.

Exposure to Ethylene Oxide is extremely dangerous. The EPA classifies it as a class 1 human carcinogen; there are no safe breathing levels. EtO is known to cause breast cancer and leukemia, and children are especially susceptible to its effects. The EPA states that EtO significantly contributes to elevated cancer risks in some areas of the US. CHEJ has been working with the Concerned Citizens of Lake County who are fighting cancerous EtO emissions in Lake County, IL (part of suburban Chicago). There are 2 facilities, 3 miles apart, that emit EtO: Vantage Specialty in Gurnee and Medline Industries in Waukegan. Vantage is a chemical production company and Medline is a medical sterilization company. Both are located within ‘light industrial’ business parks. We discovered the companies’ emissions in Fall 2018, via a breaking news Chicago Tribune article regarding 3 EtO emitters in the Chicago area. The third emitter, Sterigenics (Willowbrook, IL) was not in our area and closed in Fall 2019 due to community, media, and legislative pressure (and rumored back-door industrial competitive pressure from Medline).

There are over 150,000 Lake County residents and over 100 schools/daycares within 5 miles of both Vantage and Medline, along with numerous large Gurnee family tourist attractions (Gurnee Mills, Six Flags Great America/Hurricane Harbor, and Great Wolf Lodge waterpark). Medline also has 4 warehouses in our area that are potentially used to off-gas EtO-sterilized products in an unregulated manner. Medline is currently building a 5th Lake County warehouse. Many area doctors tell us they see far more cancer cases in Lake County than in other Chicagoland areas.

Our goal is to end EtO emissions in Lake County’s highly populated, economically and racially diverse area.  There are large apartment complexes approximately 0.25 miles from Medline and an elementary school 2000 feet away from Vantage.  The census tracks near Medline appeared on the most recent NATA map for 90-100% cancer risk. There is no information for areas near
Vantage on the same NATA map due to a ‘coding error,’ however in 2014 Vantage emitted 6,412 lbs of EtO gas, more than either Sterigenics or Medline during that same period. For more information about dioxins, check out our website:

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Creosote is a large mixture of chemicals that is used as a wood preservative in the United States, as well as for roofing, aluminum smelting, and road paving. Houston’s Fifth Ward has been pinpointed as a Cancer Cluster: an area that has a “greater than expected number of cancer cases,” largely due to the community’s exposure to creosote from the Union Pacific railroad site in Houston’s 5th Ward.

Creosote is released into soil and water systems and may take many years to break down. Due to groundwater contamination, creosote can make its way into drinking water systems, putting entire communities at risk for exposure. Creosote may cause irritation of the respiratory tract and can lead to stomach pains and burning of the throat and mouth. The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the EPA have determined that creosote is likely a carcinogen, meaning that exposure to the chemical can likely cause cancer.

CHEJ has been working with the Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA) to help the communities of Houston’s 5th Ward further understand the extent of the contamination and what different health investigations can do to propel THEA’s goals of raising awareness of their exposure to creosote. CHEJ and THEA have been hosting informational Zoom town halls about Houston’s 5th Ward Cancer Cluster. You can learn more about Houston’s Cancer Cluster by watching Fault Lines’ mini documentary or by visiting THEA’s Facebook page to learn and listen in on their past and future town hall meetings or learn how to get involved.

To learn more about creosote, click here.

Dioxins are a group of toxic compounds that share similar and distinct chemical structures. They are mainly byproducts of industrial processes, such as waste incineration. In 1979, the EPA banned products containing Polychlorinated Bihphenyls (PCBs), which is a chemical included under the term dioxin. However, dioxins were a major issue before the US began implementing regulations. Since dioxins break down extremely slowly, toxins that were released long ago are still being released into the environment.

Today, most people are exposed to dioxins through consuming animal products that have accumulated dioxins over time. Exposure to these toxins in humans can cause cancer, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, infertility in adults, impairment of the immune system, and skin lesions. The following measures can help decrease your risk to dioxin exposure: removing skin from chicken and fish, trimming visible fat from meats, and checking local fishing advisories when catching your own seafood. Learn more about the health risks and safety measures regarding dioxin here.

The San Jacinto Waste Pits is a Superfund site in Harris County, Texas that is packed with dioxin and other toxic chemicals. Hurricane Harvey hit Harris County in 2017 and led to large damages and erosion throughout the region, causing the San Jacinto Waste Pits site to begin leaking toxic chemicals, such as dioxins into the surrounding communities.

CHEJ has worked with the Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA) and the San Jacinto River Coalition in order to help bring awareness to their nearby Superfund sites and the damages that hurricanes have caused. In 2017, THEA and the San Jacinto River Coalition succeeded in bringing attention to the waste pits and the EPA announced plans that they would remove the toxic contents from the pits entirely through a $115 million site remediation by late 2021.

In addition to THEA, residents in Wausau, WI living immediately adjacent to former Wauleco window manufacturing sites who were concerned about dioxin contamination formed Citizens for a Clean Wausau. Recent testing in a park found high levels of dioxin but the state dismissed the results. However, the state had to correct itself when CHEJ’s science director wrote a letter to the group pointing out that the state’s risk assessment failed to include dioxin’s cancer risk. Given dioxin’s high potency as a carcinogen, this was a major oversight. The group continues to fight for more testing. Earlier this year, the leader of the group ran for and won a seat on the city council, giving the group a great inside/outside approach to getting what they want. CHEJ continues to provide technical and organizing support to Wausau’s residents.

Arsenic is a naturally-occurring element found throughout the Earth’s crust. It is usually found combined with other elements creating a powder that is odorless and tasteless and can exist
either in an organic or inorganic form. Inorganic arsenic compounds are highly toxic and for years were used to preserve wood. Copper chromated arsenate (CCA) was used to make “pressure-treated” lumber. Though no longer used for residential uses, CCA is still used in industrial applications. Organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides, primarily on cotton fields and orchards.

Common ways people are exposed to arsenic include living near hazardous waste sites and industrial facilities that release arsenic air emissions; living near or working in occupations such
as metal smelting, wood treatment, or pesticide applications that use arsenic. Living in areas that have naturally high arsenic levels in rock can also result in exposure. Arsenic cannot be destroyed in the environment, so once it is released by either natural or human activity it can enter the air, soil, and water.

Arsenic is classified as a human carcinogen, meaning exposure to it can cause cancer. Skin, liver, bladder, and lung cancer are the most commonly reported cancer types. There are also non-cancer health effects including circulatory, neurological, and endocrine effects. Arsenic may also cause developmental effects in children.

Residents of a North Birmingham, Alabama neighborhood located next to two coke manufacturing plants know first-hand what it’s like to be exposed to arsenic. For years, the residents there have been suffering from air emissions that contain arsenic, lead and other metals. They have complained of soot inside and outside their homes,
and have been plagued with health problems such as cancer and premature deaths. The residents organized People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC) and raised enough pressure to get EPA and ATSDR’s attention. Only problem was the EPA thought the residents could live with the contamination following some limited cleanup. Now residents are saying enough is enough and they want to be relocated. One way the residents thought they might achieve this is by convincing the state to request that EPA place the 35th Avenue waste site on the federal Superfund list. PANIC and the state-wide group GASP hoped to convince the governor to do this by holding a protest caravan of over 50 cars that went around the city of Birmingham asking people to contact Governor Kay Ivey and ask her to put the 35th Avenue contaminated site on the federal Superfund list. The group is planning a follow-up to Montgomery to help convince the governor.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of man-made chemicals that were used in industrial and commercial settings for their properties as electrical insulators. Their use was banned in 1979 but products containing them may still be in use. Despite this ban, there are several ways PCBs are still released into the environment today: through poorly maintained hazardous waste sites containing PCBs; leaks from electrical equipment; and accidental or deliberate dumping of PCB waste into sites not capable of handling them.

PCB release is a problem because the EPA classifies PCBs as probable human carcinogens, meaning there is a likely association between exposure to PCBs and cancer, including melanoma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, breast cancer and liver cancer. Exposure to PCBs also has non-cancer health effects including immune system suppression, deficits in learning and neurological development, and reproductive system effects such as decreased birth weight and birth defects.

The residents of Minden, WV know about the release of PCBs all too well. The company Shaffer Equipment used PCBs in building electrical substations for the local coal mining industry. In storing and disposing of equipment, they poured PCB-containing liquid onto the ground, stored fluid in waste containers that later leaked, and even sprayed PCB oils on roads to combat dust. The EPA found that Shaffer also dumped contaminated equipment and oil into abandoned mines, and while they removed some contaminated soil and recommended constructing a cap over the site, cleanup was never completed and PCB-contaminated oil is still present there.

The effects have been devastating for the people of Minden – it’s a town of under 300 people, and a local physician has verified over 100 cases of cancer among current and former residents. Recently, residents got the EPA to test for PCB contamination throughout the town, but the community isn’t stopping there. They have a list of demands that includes having their homes bought out; lifetime health monitoring; and a PCB health clinic. CHEJ is working with these residents, helping them with information about PCBs and their fight for a safe and healthy community.

Formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical that affects the respiratory system, lungs, eyes, and skin. It is classified as a carcinogen, hazardous substance, and hazardous waste. According to the American Cancer Society, Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong smelling gas used in making building materials and many common household products. It is well known for its preservative and anti-bacterial properties. It is commonly used in building materials such as particle board, pressed wood, insulation, glues and adhesives and more. It is also found in medicines, cosmetics, and cleaning products. Formaldehyde is even used in some food products as a preservative.

Formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical and is a known human carcinogen. It has been linked to cancer in animal studies. One study in mice showed that “applying a 10% solution of formaldehyde to the skin was linked to quicker development of cancers caused by another chemical”. Formaldehyde is common in certain workplaces and studies of industrial workers show increased risk of leukemia and cancers of the nose and throat. Formaldehyde can also be released from plants producing products that contain the chemical, increasing exposure to surrounding neighborhoods

Since Formaldehyde is commonly found in many products commonly used in the home and workplace, exposure to the public is high. The main way exposure occurs is inhaling the chemical, although the liquid form can also be absorbed through the skin. Because of these routine exposures, formaldehyde is often present in both indoor and outdoor air, though at low levels. Materials containing formaldehyde can release it as a gas or vapor into the air.

There is a section of St. James Parish in Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley”. Cancer Alley is an 85 mile stretch of petrochemical plants and oil refineries along the Mississippi river. Many of these plants release several cancer causing chemicals, including formaldehyde and benzene. People living in this area are 50 times more likely to get cancer than the average American. Rolling Stone calls Cancer Alley the “front line of environmental racism”. The communities surrounding this toxic stretch of plants consist largely of minority and low income neighborhoods, the poorest people in Louisiana live closest to Cancer Alley. New plants are in the process of getting approved and residents are wary of more pollution including an increase in formaldehyde and other cancer causing chemicals.

To learn more about formaldehyde, click here.

To learn more about Cancer Alley, click here.

Radium is a naturally-occurring element found in soil, rocks, and water. Radium is radioactive, meaning its atoms are unstable and will decay over time. This process of radioactive decay produces gamma radiation, which can damage and mutate the cells in our body. This makes exposure to radium through inhalation or ingestion highly dangerous, leading to an increased risk of bone, blood, liver, and breast cancers. Even more concerning, radioactive decay of radium also produces the element radon, another radioactive element which causes lung cancer. The EPA classifies both radium and radon as known human carcinogens.

Radium is present at low levels in the environment, but elevated levels can be released through industrial plants that extract or process fuels such as ores, coal, oil, and gas. Working in these kinds of facilities or being exposed to improperly protected waste from them are common ways people come into contact with radium.

In Ohio, communities are being exposed to radium in new ways. A byproduct of oil and gas production wells is brine, a mixture of injection chemicals, oil, salts, and water from the underground geologic formation. The state Department of Transportation uses this brine on roads as a deicer and dust suppressant in at least 28 counties. This brine can ultimately end up in soil, drinking water, and agricultural products. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) tested samples from 151 gas and oil wells and the vast majority of them contained radium levels far above state legal limits and EPA drinking water standards. This means the brine sprayed on roads likely contains high levels of radium that pose a danger to the surrounding communities.

This brine is filtered and supplemented with an anti-corrosive chemical to create the consumer product AquaSalina for the general public to use on sidewalks and roads. All AquaSalina samples tested by ODNR contained radium levels above federal drinking water limits, and the average amount of radium was 346 times the EPA standard.

Batches of oil or gas brine are not legally required to be tested for radioactivity, and there are no provisions for monitoring radioactivity in the areas where brine is used. This means that even though communities are being exposed to dangerous levels of radium we don’t know the full extent of environmental and health impacts. The best way to keep people safe is to stop using radium-containing brine.

Lead is a naturally occurring element present in small amounts in the Earth’s crust. It has historically been used in many consumer products including gasoline, paint, plumbing materials, batteries, and cosmetics. This makes lead common all around us, in the air, water, soil, and buildings. Exposure to lead most commonly happens through ingestion or inhalation from lead paint, gas, pipes, or waste from industrial facilities that produce these products.

Lead has been known to be toxic since the 19th century, and it can have adverse effects on most human organs by interfering with the function of enzymes in our cells. In adults, lead exposure can lead to reproductive dysfunction, kidney failure, and cardiovascular problems. However, the most potent and devastating effects of lead are on children because they are more likely to be exposed through play and exploration and because growing bodies absorb more lead. Lead is a neurotoxin, interfering with the growth and development of children’s brains. This can cause hearing and vision loss, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities, which may be irreversible. These effects occur at even low levels of lead exposure, and in extreme cases lead exposure can lead to death in children and adults. Alarmingly, even though the toxic effects of lead are well known, a recent study estimates that 800 million children worldwide are exposed to lead today.

The Flint, Michigan water crisis is one of the most famous examples of toxic chemical exposure in recent memory. In 2014 the city changed the source of its drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River but did not administer corrosion inhibitors. Lead from old pipes leeched into the drinking water and 100,000 residents, including 12,000 children, were likely exposed. In 2015 scientific studies by two groups established that there were elevated lead levels in Flint residents’ blood. As residents and activists complained about symptoms of lead poisoning such as rashes and hair loss, the city then told them to use bottled water, returned to its previous water sourcing system, and publicly claimed that there was no longer any danger. It has been replacing lead pipes since 2016, but many have yet to be replaced. Nonetheless, it is already clear that the children of Flint have suffered irreparable harm. A 2019 study in which 174 children went through rigorous cognitive exams found that 80% of participants require special education assistance for language or learning disorders, as opposed to 15% of Flint children who required this assistance before 2014. The government’s suggestions for keeping safe have caused their own health problems as well: point-of-use water filters recommended for use in people’s homes have now been linked to bacterial infections like Legionnaire’s Disease in the city.

In August 2020, victims in Flint were awarded a $600 million settlement as restitution. It is important to note that Flint is majority Black and has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, illustrating how exposure to toxic chemicals and inaction from government agencies disproportionately affects Black and poor communities. While lawsuits and government responses can mitigate some of the damage, communities must be kept safe by preventing their exposure to toxins. October is Children’s Health Month, and the water crisis in Flint underscores how children are especially vulnerable to toxic exposures. Prioritizing health is essential for allowing future generations to grow and thrive.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of chemicals that have been used since the 1950s in firefighting foams and many consumer products that includes firefighting foams, stain- and water-resistant fabrics, nonstick cookware and food packaging. PFAS chemicals are highly stable, so when they are released, people can be exposed through air, dust, food, and water resulting in widespread exposure.

Many types of PFAS are known to have adverse health effects on humans including increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women, and decreased birth weight. Epidemiologic studies also suggest a link between exposure to certain types of PFAS and increased rates of kidney, prostate, and testicular cancer.

The Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire may have exposed area residents to PFAS in their drinking water for decades. The US Air Force operated this base from 1956-1991, and upon its closure the EPA added it to the National Priorities List, a “list of contaminated sites with known or threatened releases of hazardous substances” because of groundwater and soil contamination. This contamination likely came from PFAS in the chemicals the Air Force used to extinguish fires which seeped into the groundwater and water wells servicing the surrounding community. In 2014, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) measured elevated PFAS levels in these wells and in the blood of people who had been drinking from them. In response, one of these water wells was shut down and the remaining ones were fitted with water treatment systems to remove PFAS contaminants.

ATSDR states that these changes will ensure residents are no longer exposed to PFAS, but it offers little guidance for people who may have been exposed to PFAS in the drinking water before 2014. It provides no information about how residents should monitor their health or how long they may have been exposed to PFAS. PFAS levels in the area water wells are now being periodically monitored and ATSDR and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are conducting a biomonitoring health study of children and adults exposed to PFAS-contaminated water in the area.

Similar PFAS contamination is occurring at sites across the country including in Alaska at several sites near facilities that used PFAS-containing compounds in fire-fighting chemicals. As of 2019, 10 communities in Alaska have PFAS levels in their drinking water that the EPA deems unsafe. Alarmingly, Alaska is rolling back regulations and testing on PFAS in drinking water. State and federal agencies are failing to fully investigate potential sources of PFAS contamination and the effects on the surrounding areas.

Many things are unclear about the PFAS exposure communities around the country, but what is clear is that more must be done: more scientific studies to understand the health effects of PFAS, more transparent recommendations from health agencies to the community, and more precautions to keep people safe from these chemicals.

Click here to learn more about Testing for Pease, a community action group whose mission is to be a reliable resource for education and communication while advocating for a long-term health plan on behalf of those impacted by the PFAS water contamination at the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, NH.

Click here to learn more about PFAS contamination in Alaska.

Camp Lejeune is a US Marine Corps base established in 1942 in Jacksonville, North Carolina. In 1982 the Marine Corps found that drinking water from distribution plants serving the majority of the base was contaminated with volatile organic compounds. This contamination came from leaking storage tanks, poor industrial waste disposal, and a dry cleaning firm. The main contaminants were trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). TCE exposure is known to cause kidney cancer, lymphoma, and cardiac defects, and it is also linked to liver cancer, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease. PCE exposure is known to cause bladder cancer and is linked to lymphoma and renal disease. Exposure to these chemicals may also be linked to infertility, miscarriage, and birth defects. At one of the water treatment plants in Camp Lejeune, TCE levels were 280 times higher than the current acceptable limit set by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). At another plant, PCE levels were 43 times higher than the current acceptable limit. While the most contaminated water wells were subsequently shut down, people living and working at Camp Lejeune were likely exposed to high levels of these toxins for decades. ATSDR estimates that residents were likely exposed to these toxins from 1957 to 1987. Even more concerning, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says, “The exact duration and intensity of the exposure at Camp Lejeune are unknown. The geographic extent of contamination by specific chemicals also is unknown.” This means the number of people exposed at Camp Lejeune and the full extent of their health risks from this contamination are difficult to evaluate.

For years, the grassroots organization The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten has been advocating for those affected by the Camp Lejeune contamination. It provides information about potential health effects and raised questions about the Marine Corps’ official contamination timeline. Most importantly, it keeps the focus of this crisis on the people, spotlighting former service members and families facing devastating illnesses and death because of these toxins. By telling the stories of those affected, The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten makes sure we reckon with the harm that has been done to countless lives.

Through pressure from groups like The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten and US senators, in 2017 the VA created a “presumption of service connection” for eight health conditions associated with exposure to the toxins in the Camp Lejeune water supply. This means that for active duty military and National Guard members who served at the base for at least 30 days from 1953 to 1987 and develop any of these health conditions, the VA will presume that they are caused by the toxins at Camp Lejeune and provide them with disability benefits. The eight health conditions are: adult leukemia, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Parkinson’s disease.

The situation at Camp Lejeune is but one example of contamination at military bases that has affected not just the soldiers on the base and their families, but also civilians who live nearby. The USEPA has listed as many as 130 military sites as candidate Superfund sites with 22 on the Superfund list. While the health benefits provided at Camp Lejeune are a good first step, they don’t do anything to keep service members safe. More needs to be done such as advocating for proactive measures like stricter waste disposal regulations, environmental monitoring, and biomonitoring, to make sure people are protected. It isn’t enough to mitigate the damage from crises like that at Camp Lejeune, we must prevent these crises from happening again.

The holiday season often means more food, family, and shopping. As we look for gifts for our loved ones, we have never had more resources at our disposal to make sure we are making safe, healthy decisions. And even with advances in science and technology, many consumer products are still manufactured with toxic chemicals known to cause serious health problems like cancer, developmental delays, and reproductive defects. These harms are especially concerning when they involve children’s products. Because of the way children play, they are not only exposed to chemicals in their toys through inhalation and absorption, but through ingestion as well. And because of their size, small concentrations of chemicals can have significant effects on children’s bodies, even if those concentrations are deemed safe for adults. These chemicals can have permanent, devastating consequences on children’s developing tissues and organs, For instance, phthalates are a class of chemicals common in many plastic products including toys. Exposure to these chemicals is associated with problems in reproductive development as well as brain development, including ADHD, autistic behaviors, and cognitive impairment.

In some cases, agencies like the Food and Drug Administration have been slow to incorporate new scientific information into their assessments of chemicals. In other cases, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency have weakened regulations and actions when companies use known toxins in their products. Through this bureaucratic sluggishness and active deregulation, the federal government has failed to ensure that consumer products are only made with safe materials.

Thankfully, there are consumer advocacy groups that investigate the chemicals in common products and educate the public so they can make informed purchasing decisions. For example, the Mind the Store campaign published a retailer report card in 2019 where they rated the overall safety of products from 43 common retailers. It allows people to learn about chemicals that are used in products from retailers in many different sectors including children’s products, apparel, groceries, electronics, beauty products, and furniture. To produce their safety rating for each retailer, Mind the Store used 14 criteria including transparency, oversight, accountability, third-party standards, and continuous improvement over time, and people can see how each retailer fares along each criterion. Similar information on harmful chemicals common in toys is available from the Environmental Working Group and Green America. These consumer guides and educational resources are a powerful way to make informed decisions when buying children’s products.

In response to increased consumer advocacy and awareness about toxins in toys and packaging, many retailers now tout that their products are not made with certain harmful chemicals. While this transparency is a crucial way to keep our kids safe as we buy gifts for the holidays, only federal regulation and oversight can truly ensure that all toys are free of toxic chemicals.

It’s the Christmas season, and because real pine trees can be cumbersome and high maintenance, many families use artificial Christmas trees. While artificial trees seem like an easy and sustainable alternative, the materials they are made out of can pose health risks. Like many consumer products, artificial trees are often made with a type of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC releases gases into the air that can cause dizziness and irritation to the eyes, nose, and lungs.

PVC is often treated with plasticizers to make it flexible, and the most common plasticizers are a class of chemicals call phthalates. Phthalates shed off of the plastic products they’re used in, released as gases into the air and dust onto surfaces. Exposure to phthalates in these forms is associated with diabetes, obesity, and reproductive disorders. It is particularly dangerous for the development of children’s brains and may cause permanent cognitive impairment, autistic behaviors, and ADHD.

PVC is also often treated with lead as a stabilizer. Over time this lead sheds off of the PVC, creating lead dust that can accumulate on the surfaces in your home. Inhalation or ingestion of lead is extremely dangerous. In adults it can lead to cardiovascular, reproductive, and kidney dysfunction. Like phthalates, lead exposure is particularly dangerous for children’s development – it can cause permanent neurological damage including sensory loss, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and anxiety. Because of their small size, even small amounts of toxins that may be innocuous for adults can pose serious risks to children.

How much of a health risk are these PVC trees in the US? A study found that 50 million households use PVC trees and estimated that this means 57,500 children may be exposed to high lead levels because of these trees. Although it may seem like the health risks from artificial Christmas trees is low, because of the potential permanent effects on children’s development, families should avoid using artificial trees made with PVC. Through consumer education and advocacy campaigns, many companies explicitly advertise products as being free of PVCs, and artificial Christmas trees made with alternative materials are widely sold. If you are already using an artificial tree with PVC this year there are some ways to mitigate the risks: limit physical contact with the tree, avoid getting lead dust on presents by putting them some distance away from the tree, and don’t use a household vacuum to try to clean up lead dust as this will cause the lead particles to become airborne.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! We all deserve a safe and healthy holiday season free of toxic chemicals.