“I’m dreaming of a poisonous Christmas…” said no one ever. Yet every year, we purchase tons of cheaply made garland, wrappings and ornaments that are chock-full of toxic chemicals.
No matter how you celebrate, decorations are a big part of the holiday season. They honor tradition, create a festive atmosphere and get us in the mood for merry-making. So why be a buzz-kill by purchasing or using decorations that contain harmful ingredients?
Like just about everything these days, the cheaper the price tag on those holiday decorations, the more sure you can be that toxic chemicals or un-sustainable materials were used in their construction. Not to mention the fact that they’ll probably fall apart within the first few years of use, tempting you to throw them away and start all over again.
This year, let’s get off the chemical merry-go-round. We’ve rounded up six common holiday decorations that contain nasty chemicals, as well as eco-friendlier alternatives you can use to achieve the same look, without all the risk. Enjoy!
1. Artificial Christmas Trees
Every year the eco-debate over real vs. fake trees wages on with no real end in sight. Suffice to say that if you’re going to utilize a fake tree (and there are many green reasons to do so), it’s important to be careful. Until recently, artificial Christmas trees were cut from compressed polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sheets. “Vinyl chloride, the chemical used to make PVC, is a known human carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Workers in PVC manufacturing facilities and residents of surrounding communities are at risk from exposure to these chemicals which contaminate the water, soil and air around these facilities,” reports HealthyChild.org. Now some tree makers have switched to injection-molded polyethylene (PE) plastic, which is safer but still plastic (blech).
Alternatives: Use this guide from SofterLanding to choose a non-PVC artificial tree. Or, choose to decorate a living pesticide-free tree, bush or houseplant that will continue to cleanse your indoor air long after the holidays are over.
2. Spray-On Snow
If you live in a region that doesn’t get much winter snow, you might be tempted to pick up a can of faux snow to give your windows and tree a just-frosted look. But wait! “Many snow sprays contain acetone or methylene chloride and these solvents can be harmful when inhaled,” explains California Poison Control. “Briefly inhaling the spray in a small, poorly ventilated room may result in nausea, lightheadedness and headache. Longer or more concentrated exposures can be more serious. Once the snow spray is dried, it is not dangerous.”
Alternatives: Why not spend some time with the family, cutting decorative snowflakes out of paper? It’s easy, fun, and you can use them again next year if you’re careful. You can also use cotton batting (sold at craft stores as stuffing for quilts and pillows) to create faux snow drifts along windowsills or around the tree.
3. Vintage Ornaments
As a child, my favorite ornaments were the ones handed down to my mom from her parents and grandparents. However, like many things made before the time of health and environmental regulations, these pretty baubles can be hiding a toxic secret. “They’ve been known to contain lead paint or mercury (some are even called “mercury glass” ornaments!),” explains Laura’s Rules. Even newer ornaments bearing the “Made in China” label can contain lead or toxic paints.
Alternatives: Don’t toss Great-Grandma’s ornaments just because they might contain some nasty stuff. Instead think about wearing rubber gloves when you handle them, or at the very least washing your hands right after. If you’re in need of new ornaments this year, think about making your own from natural or upcycled materials.
4. String Lights
It’s nearly impossible to imagine the holidays without lights — those twinkling, blinking strings of color that adorn everything from tree to porch. Sadly, 54 percent of holiday lights tested in a U.S. study had more lead than regulators permit in children’s products, with some strands containing more than 30 times those levels, according to a recent report by Bloomberg. According to HealthyStuff.org, the consumer organization that tested the lights, lead is a common component in vinyl, the material used to coat light wirings and bulb sockets.
Alternatives: As with the ornaments, the easiest thing to do is keep out of reach of children, who are especially susceptible to lead poisoning. Adults should handle with care as well. If you’re in the market for new lights, look for LED strands sold by IKEA or on EnvironmentalLights.com. IKEA’s light strings satisfy the stricter European Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) regulations, while some brands sold by Environmental Lights claim to be lead-free.
5. Wrapping Paper
All this decorating merely sets the stage for the big day: the moment when we come together to exchange gifts in a flurry of wrappings. While most wrapping paper and ribbons are non-toxic, foil and colored gift-wrap have been known to contain lead, making them dangerous to touch and even worse for the environment after they’re thrown away. (Note: never burn holiday wrapping paper in the fireplace!).
Alternatives: Make your own! Wrapping paper only lasts a few minutes anyway, and there are lots of other ways to prevent eyeballs from deciphering what’s inside the package. Check out these 12 Green Alternatives to Gift Wrapping Paper.
There’s nothing I love more than lighting a few candles to create a relaxing atmosphere during the holidays. Unbeknownst to many, however, many types of candles pollute indoor air and put our health at risk. “Most of the candles on the market are made with paraffin wax, derived from petroleum, and scented with synthetic fragrances, also derived from petroleum. In the study by the American Chemical Society, researchers found that the petroleum-based candles emitted varying levels of cancer-causing toluene and benzene, as well as other hydrocarbon chemicals called alkanes and alkenes, which are components of gasoline and can irritate respiratory tracts and trigger asthma,” reports Moms Clean Air Force.
Alternatives: Look for candles made from soybean, palm, hemp or beeswax — or make your own fragrant holiday candles using natural ingredients. See: 5 Handmade Candles.