Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Are Your Holiday Decorations Toxic? Separating Fact from Fiction

Health + Wellness
Pexels

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.

2. Toys

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.

Reposted with permission from Healthline. For detailed source information, please view the original article on Healthline.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Dr. Jane Goodall, the world-renowned conservationist, desperately wants the world to pay attention to what she sees as the greatest threat to humanity's existence. Craig Barritt / Getty Images for TIME

By Jeff Berardelli

While COVID-19 and protests for racial justice command the world's collective attention, ecological destruction, species extinction and climate change continue unabated. While the world's been focused on other crises, an alarming study was released warning that species extinction is now progressing so fast that the consequences of "biological annihilation" may soon be "unimaginable."

Read More Show Less
A Starbucks employee in a mask and face shield at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on May 12, 2020. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP via Getty Images

Anyone entering a U.S. Starbucks from July 15 will have to wear a face mask, the company announced Thursday.

Read More Show Less
Supporters cheer before Trump arrives for a rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, OK. Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Monday and Tuesday of the week that President Donald Trump held his first rally since March in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the county reported 76 and 96 new coronavirus cases respectively, according to POLITICO. This week, the county broke its new case record Monday with 261 cases and reported a further 206 cases on Tuesday. Now, Tulsa's top public health official thinks the rally and counterprotest "likely contributed" to the surge.

Read More Show Less
In the tropics, farmers often slash and burn forests to clear fertile land for crops, but a new method avoids that technique. Inga Foundation video

Rainforests are an important defense against climate change because they absorb carbon. But many are being destroyed on a massive scale.

Read More Show Less
A truck spreads lime on a meadow to increase the soil's fertility in Yorkshire Dales, UK. Farm Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As we look for advanced technology to replace our dependence on fossil fuels and to rid the oceans of plastic, one solution to the climate crisis might simply be found in rocks. New research found that dispersing rock dust over farmland could suck billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year, according to the first detailed large scale analysis of the technique, as The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
Global heating imposes a harsh cost at the most critical time of all: the moment of spawning. Pxfuel

By Tim Radford

German scientists now know why so many fish are so vulnerable to ever-warming oceans. Global heating imposes a harsh cost at the most critical time of all: the moment of spawning.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.