In this post, you are going to find answers to the question about what constitutes a non-toxic Christmas tree in today’s market. Are the pre-lit Christmas trees or artificial Christmas trees with lights safer than organic Christmas trees? And what about living Christmas trees? There are so many options. No wonder you are feeling uncertain and overwhelmed. A wrong decision can cost you wasted money and unnecessary exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.
Instead of touting a specific safe Christmas tree option, let me do something better for you. In my career as a full-time consumer product safety consultant and coach, I realize that knowing your options is very helpful. Only when you understand what the alternatives are, can you make an informed decision about what you are willing to decorate your house with.
Artificial Fir Christmas Tree Safety
PVC in artificial Christmas Trees
Can an artificial tree be a good option for a non-toxic Christmas tree? Artificial trees are normally made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). PVC is a type of plastic made of vinyl chloride that has been classified as “carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. In addition to cancer concerns, PVC can contain harmful additives to impart certain characteristics on plastic and artificial fir Christmas trees. These additives may include lead and phthalates. Lead is linked to neurotoxicity and cancer and phthalates are linked to hormone disruption and cancer (source).
In fact, the state of California requires trees containing PVC to carry a warning label regarding lead.
It is really hard to call an artificial tree a safe Christmas tree.
Flame retardants in artificial Christmas Trees
In addition, there is a possibility that an artificial fir Christmas tree may contain flame retardant chemicals. In humans, halogenated fire-retardant chemicals are linked to:
- reduced IQ (similar to lead poisoning),
- thyroid disruption,
- oxidative DNA stress,
- adverse effects on the immune system,
- and possibly cancer (source).
To read more about flame retardants, feel free to read this piece here.
Importantly, antimony, which is found in flame retardants, has not been classified as a carcinogen but there is an indication it might cause cancer in occupational settings (source). It’s getting harder to call an artificial tree a non-toxic Christmas tree.
PVC free Christmas trees
As you can tell by now, it is best to look for PVC free Christmas trees. My advice is not to rely simply on an online claim by a manufacturer that its trees are PVC-free. Instead, you should contact the companies and ask them. You might be surprised to find out that the information in an advertised product description does not always coincide with what the manufacturers will tell you when you call them. In my experience, for some reason, this is particularly true with product descriptions that appear on Amazon. Products change over time, and sometimes the Amazon product descriptions are outdated.
Are PVC-free trees safe Christmas trees? Artificial fir PVC-free Christmas trees are normally made of polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene (PE). These are safer types of plastic. However, that does not guarantee that these Christmas trees will be free of lead and flame retardants.
Unfortunately, I have not found 100% PVC-free artificial trees. One of the best options in this category is Balsam Hill artificial trees. They are made of 64% polyethylene.
Ways to reduce exposure to lead and flame retardants in synthetic Christmas trees
Tamara Rubin of Lead Safe Mama tests artificial Christmas trees for the lead with XMF equipment. It will show you the total amount of lead present in the tree. If you already own an artificial fir Christmas tree, you can find out if it is a lead-free Christmas tree by contacting Tamara Rubin. You can learn the details of her lead testing here.
As for the flame retardants, please contact manufacturers and ask them for this information.
In conclusion, when shopping for a non-toxic Christmas tree, look for one that is a lead-free Christmas tree, one that is not treated with flame retardants and one that is made without PVC.
Precautions to take with synthetic trees
If you decide to buy an artificial Christmas tree, there are certain precautions you can take:
- Wear gloves when setting it up and decorating. In this case, pre-lit Christmas trees or Christmas trees with lights can be handy.
- In general, don’t let kids touch the tree. Some kids will be really good about this, while others will not be able to keep their hands off the tree.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after handling (and don’t handle it if you’re pregnant).
- Damp-mop/HEPA vacuum thoroughly.
Live Christmas Tree safety
If you want to use a real Christmas tree, that’s fine, but there are some potential issues there, too. Let’s see if a live tree can be a safe Christmas tree.
Chemicals: Christmas trees may be covered with pesticides and herbicides. In order to help guard against this, look for organically grown trees, or at least trees where the chemicals are sprayed around the trees as opposed to directly on them. You can find organic Christmas tree farms here.
Mold: I found references on the WebMD website, which warns that molds found in live Christmas trees can set off reactions like severe asthma attacks, fatigue, headaches, and sinus congestion.
Allergies: If someone in your family (or someone who will be visiting) has allergies, they can be triggered by a real Christmas tree. The allergies can be caused by tree sap, pollen, or terpenes. You can read more about these allergies here.
Thus, even an organic Christmas tree may not be a fully non-toxic Christmas tree.
What about a Living Christmas Tree?
A few years ago, we decided to get a tree from a company called The Living Christmas Tree. The idea is (wait for it) you rent a living tree. A company delivers a tree to you, places it in your home, and picks it up after the holidays, all for one not so low price. They will even save it for you for next year. That sounded like a safe Christmas tree to us. You can’t really pick out your tree, and so the tree will probably not look “perfect.” It appears that there are a lot of companies that have sprung up that do the same type of thing; check your local listings as they say.
Our experience with it
We rented with the same company for three years. The first year was pretty positive. We bought a drip pan for changing oil and placed it on our hardwood floor. They showed up on time and hauled the tree (it probably weighed several hundred pounds) up a short flight of stairs into our home. They placed it in a watertight container on the drip pan I had placed. I turned a flat spot toward the wall and put lights on it. Our little boy decorated the bottom two feet, and I did the rest. He loved it, and we loved the fact that it was not going to be firewood or landfill in a month.
The second year was a little bit different. When they delivered the tree, it looked fine, but a little smaller than the first year’s. And then, even though we followed the directions to put ice cubes in it every other day, the whole tree got very dry and lost a lot of needles. It made us think that the tree had not been properly cared for over the summer. Maybe I am wrong because I am not a tree expert, so this is just my opinion, but it was very different from our first year.
And then the following year, it was even worse. The tree lost what seemed like most of its needles, even though again, every other day we emptied our ice tray into the bucket in which the tree sat.
Yes, this non-toxic Christmas tree was a bit pricey.
Later we learned that one of the reasons our rented safe Christmas tree lost its needles was that true pines need cold winters to thrive, and they do not do well in our warm homes for longer than a week.
Living Norfolk Island Pine
A good option is to get a living Norfolk Island pine. It is a tropical plant native to the South Pacific that looks like a true pine. They remind of me of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, in a good sense. Because it is a tropical plant, it thrives in warm temperatures. It can be grown indoors all year round. You can start with a small inexpensive one, and it will grow bigger each year. It can grow as tall as 200 feet.
Here are some Charlie Brown non-toxic Christmas tree options
Conclusion about a safe Christmas tree
In conclusion, there is a lot to consider and there are no clear-cut answers. There are drawbacks at every turn. But now you have information to start doing your own research and figuring out what works for you and your family. And if there is an option I have not covered here or if you have some thoughts and experience to share, please tell us in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.
For some lead-free or lead-safe Christmas decoration options as well as for other non-toxic products including an air purifier that you can use to improve air quality around the holiday tree, please visit my shop.
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