Toxic Tuesdays

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

Artificial Christmas Tree

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.

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