Are Your Holiday Decorations Toxic? Separating Fact from Fiction
By Gigen Mammoser
- Most holiday decorations, toys, ornaments, and plants aren't going to hurt you, but some can pose health risks if they aren't handled appropriately.
- Practicing good hygiene habits, like hand washing (not only for germs) but also to prevent the potential transfer of unwanted chemicals after handling items.
- This can help further limit risks — especially for young children who may put their hands in their mouth.
- Experts say the hype around potentially toxic holiday items, such as ornaments, is generally overblown and the actual risk is very low.
If you're like many other people this time of year, you're probably approaching the busy holiday season with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Celebrating with family and friends is a great way to pass the cold winter months, but it's coupled with the pressure of travel, shopping, and plenty of other inconveniences.
And for some families, especially those with young children, the holidays can also raise worries about potential health risks as well.
It's not uncommon to see reports this time of year about dangerous toys, toxic chemicals in Christmas decorations, and even poisonous holiday plants being a cause for concern.
The good news is that a lot of the hype around these potentially dangerous items is generally overblown. That said, you should be informed about some holiday hazards, especially if you've got kids (or pets) in the house.
That's why we've separated fact from fiction about four categories of holiday products and the real health risks they may pose.
1. Christmas Decorations and Lights
Yes, all those beautiful tree ornaments, the decorations, and even that snarl of lights you drag out of storage once a year have the potential to contain toxic substances.
The most common reason: They can contain lead.
Major news outlets, including Consumer Affairs, have speculated on the potential for lead exposure from holiday decorations, but it's not clear what, if any, real threat these items actually pose to individuals.
"My sense would be that there is, overall, hardly an epidemic of lead poisoning as a result of folks decorating their trees and putting up their decorations," Dr. Ken Spaeth, chief of environmental medicine at Northwell Health in New York, told Healthline.
It can also be difficult to know for sure whether or not your ornaments and decorations contain lead.
A study from 2014 found that 13 percent of seasonal holiday products sold at major retailers like Walmart and CVS contained lead levels that exceeded a threshold deemed safe for children's toys. Although the products are not regulated as children's toys, they may be handled by children during the holidays.
While newer decorations manufactured in the U.S. may not contain lead, if you've been hanging onto a box of old Christmas stuff since as far back as you can remember, or if you're buying cheap holiday ornaments online, there is the potential that they could contain lead.
"Lead is still used in a number of manufacturing processes for consumer items. More so in items manufactured outside the U.S. where standards are usually more lax … It's very difficult to really feel confident about some products and that would certainly hold true for some of the seasonal and holiday specific items that make their way out to the market starting this time of year," said Spaeth.
Spaeth does warn, however, that parents should be cautious with children around holiday ornaments and decorations. He notes that while lead exposure is unlikely through skin contact, it very easily can enter the body through the mouth.
"Especially with young children who are more prone to put the item in their mouth. Now you've got a very direct pathway for exposure," said Spaeth.
The holidays and toys go together like marshmallows and hot cocoa. But, like holiday decorations and ornaments, depending on the quality and the manufacturing of the toy, there is also a potential for lead or other heavy metal contamination, most frequently through paint.
Every year the U.S. PIRG, a group of consumer advocacy driven organizations, releases their "Trouble In Toyland" report on toy safety, where readers can find the most dangerous toys on the market.
Additionally, with the rise in popularity of more electronic gifts, batteries are an increasingly common hazard, particularly for young children.
Dr. Rais Vohra, the medical director of the Fresno/Madera division of the California Poison Control System, told Healthline that "button" batteries, which are small and easy to swallow can be very dangerous.
"Those can actually lead to really bad burns and damage to the esophagus as well as to the stomach," he said.
3. Holiday Plants
Poinsettia, holly, mistletoe: Nothing says Christmas quite like them.
However, they also have a reputation for being poisonous, though they aren't as dangerous as some would have you believe.
A 2012 review of the toxicity of most common decorative holiday plants found that most ingestions, even in children, are asymptomatic That is, you probably don't need to worry about your child poisoning themself from a poinsettia.
Nonetheless, exposures do happen quite commonly, according to Vohra.
"These things are very beautiful. They are around during the Christmastime holidays. They may be on a kitchen table or on a countertop, and a child can just grab a number of leaves or berries or even a poinsettia leaf and then ingest something that causes a reaction," he said.
"For the most part though, most kids even if they [ingest these plants] they will probably tolerate it pretty well," said Vohra.
Ingesting holiday plants can still result in symptoms like upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, but rarely in more serious poisoning outcomes.
4. Wrapping Paper
Wrapping paper is beautiful. That's why we use it to wrap gifts. But the components that make it beautiful — inks, dyes, and other chemicals — also mean it has the potential to contain toxic substances.
"There [are] an increasingly large number of chemicals being used to treat the paper, to color the paper, to make the paper more elaborate and sometimes that can include the use of heavy metals," said Spaeth.
But, like the aforementioned toys and decorations in this list, how and where the paper is manufactured will have a strong bearing on whether it actually contains toxic components.
Handling the paper and wrapping gifts with it isn't going to make you sick, but as a rule of thumb, don't let children put it in their mouths.
And don't burn it.
"There are so many synthetic products, if you burn it, you're likely to be breathing in those chemicals," said Spaeth.
The Bottom Line
Most holiday decorations, toys, ornaments, and plants aren't going to hurt you, but it's a no-brainer to make sure they're all handled appropriately, especially if there are kids around.
Insist on good hygiene habits like hand washing (not only for germs) but also to prevent the potential transfer of unwanted chemicals when you bring down that dusty box of decorations out of the attic.
"Kids are kids… Make sure your kids are safe and make sure you know what they are eating and what they are putting in their mouths, and make sure that's not poisonous," said Vohra.
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