STATS ARTICLES 2006

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Toxic Christmas Trees?

Is the media’s obsession with outgassing producing a lot of hot air? Plus, a roundup of Christmas tree terrors.

Outgassing. It means the slow release of gas from a substance; in the case of the media, it means something akin to a prolonged brain fart over the idea that we are being poisoned by chemicals in plastics.

Here’s the latest from the San Francisco Chronicle on phthalates, a chemical that has become something of an obsession to the paper in recent weeks (see here and here):

“Perhaps instead of "O Christmas Tree" we should be singing "O Toxic Tree," according to SaferBuilding.com, which advises us not to get too close when we're sniffing our fresh evergreen because toxic fire retardants may have been applied.

Putting up a plastic tree raises another potential danger if phthalates were used to soften the plastic: Heat from lights may create toxic vapors.

SaferBuilding.com claims to be the only organization doing independent testing of building materials and methods, and the company offers a variety of fact sheets to consumers as well as industry professionals on its Web site.

Its safety message of the season seems to be: Wrap your vocal cords around the song, but keep your distance from the tree.”

Over at SaferBuilding.com, there is nothing in the way of scientific research freely available on the site to indicate that outgassing of either chemical has actually been measured (the site charges for most of its reports). As STATS is not aware that anyone actually has measured the outgassing of phthalates from plastic Christmas trees, we contacted the organization to see what data it was citing for the alert. So far, SafeBuilding.com has not responded.

STATS is not aware of any study showing that phthalates do in fact outgas from plastic Christmas trees – or that even if they do, that it would present any threat whatsoever to one’s health. The fact is that most of our exposure to phthalates comes from food and dust – and no-one has shown that this exposure (which is many, many times below the reference doses stipulated by regulatory studies) has caused any ill effects.

Vancouver’s 24 Hours also advised buying real trees, on the scientific advice of Michael Rosen, who happens to be “vice-president of TCF, a national foundation that helps get trees planted across the country.”

“Most artificial trees, on the other hand, are made of polyvinyl chloride, which also contains phthalates, a carcinogen that builds up in body tissue.”

Phthalates are, in fact, a family of chemicals, and though rats have experienced adverse health effects when forced to consume massive quantities in laboratory settings, there is no study showing that they, collectively, or singly, are a human carcinogen.

Other festive tales of terror trees
Not everyone in medialand is worried about plastic trees, however; Canada’s Richmond Review is concerned about all the pesticides on a real-live dead Christmas tree,

“Most of us will probably take care not to bring pesticides into our homes during the year—when we apply them to our lawns we take care to remove our shoes so we don’t track this stuff into our indoor environment. But not so when it comes to Christmas trees.

We plunk the tree down in the middle of our homes, breathe in the fumes and even hang decorations on it to pretty it up. Who needs alcohol if you can get high from the tree in your living room? The toxins will hit your brain just the same with similar effects.”

While the writer appears to have acute chemical sensitivity, it should be noted that synthetic pesticides are much less dangerous than people think – as the Carcinogenic Potency Project at the University of California, Berkeley, points out.

But as the writer doesn’t identify the particular pesticides on the tree that apparently gave him a sinus headache, it is impossible to examine the specific safety data. Moreover, the pesticides may not have been responsible for his allergic reaction, as the Evansville Courier Press points out, it might have been the tree itself – or mold growing on it.

The Orangeville Citizen – also from Canada – takes a different tack, and wants us to pay attention to any fertilizer that may be brought in with real Christmas trees – not because we are at risk from cancer, but because our pets may get an upset stomach. Citing the Ontario Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Citizen also notes that,

“Stagnant tree water may be full of bacteria, which could cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in your pet. Decorations such as ribbons are very attractive to pets, especially cats, and if ingested can cause intestinal obstruction. Sparkly lights are equally attractive, but can become life threatening if your pet decides to chew the cords.”

That seems rather more reasonable - although one should be careful of the fire risk posed by a tree that is too dry, according to the Florida Times Union. In the event of such a disaster, the outgassing of noxious fumes – unlike the outgassing of fire-retardants – is certain to be deadly to you and your pets. As the U.S. Fire Administration notes,

“Christmas trees account for 200 fires annually, resulting in 6 deaths, 25 injuries and more than $6 million in property damage. Typically shorts in electrical lights or open flames from candles, lighters or matches start tree fires. Well-watered trees are not a problem. Dry and neglected trees can be.”

On a lighter, theatrically tragic note, If you happen to have a ferret you probably should tether your tree to the wall, according to the Marco Island Sun Times in Florida, as ferrets – and cats – like to climb, and catastrophe may ensue. Eminently sensible advice.

Finally, we thank the Ashbury Park Press for this timely, festive reminder:  Don’t eat your Christmas tree.

“Christmas trees such as pines, spruces and junipers may cause stomach upset if large amounts are ingested. Ingestion of small amounts may cause irritation of the mouth.”

And while we’re at it, don’t eat mistletoe, holly, or the poinsettas. Have a safe Holiday!