Christmas decorations and toys - they seem harmless enough, with nothing but festive moments and good intentions behind it all. Sadly, from christmas lights to garlands to toys, they are not as innocuous as they may seem. Many contain heavy metals like lead, flame retardants, and other endocrine disruptors like BPA and phthalates. Often these things are made with PVC, which is damaging to both the environment and people in many ways.
I encourage everyone this holiday season to take a closer look at what materials their decorations and toys are made of and consider some less toxic options.
Leaching toxic chemicals? What's all the fuss about?
The primary reason many avoid toxins is to protect their children. Many, if not most, plastic toys are essentially a veritable toxic soup of chemicals that can even include heavy metals. Phthalates, BPA, lead and cadmium are just some of the dangers lurking in common plastic toys. I wish I could say stricter regulations on such things in toys were working. Just recently, the consumer group US PIRG released their “Trouble in Toyland” report stating that regarding lead, “We found two toys that violate the CPSC’s lead standard of 100 ppm. Most notably, the Captain America Soft Shield, for ages two and up, was found to contain 29 times the standard (2900 ppm) for lead.” They found evidence of the other chemicals as well. “The current legal federal standard limits six kinds of phthalates to 1,000 ppm and limits the amounts of antimony, arsenic, cadmium and other elements that can leach out of toys. We found toxic chemicals including phthalates, antimony, and cadmium. The Ninja Turtle Pencil Case was found to contain 150,000 ppm of one of six phthalates banned from toys, as well as excessive levels (600 ppm) of the toxic metal cadmium."
How are these toxins harmful?
BPA and Phthalates are considered “endocrine disruptors” and do just that – they wreak havoc on the fragile, developing endocrine systems of children (and they're not so great for adults either). Mounting evidence shows that exposure happens to a child as early as inside the womb as a fetus, and onward through the rest of their life. These chemicals are linked to the increasingly common problem of early puberty, as well as infertility, ovarian, prostate and breast cancer, diabetes, obesity, hypospadia and more. Heavy metals like lead and cadmium can cause everything from learning disabilities and behavioral problems to damage to kidneys and the nervous system.
If they are so rampant, is there any point in avoiding them?
Dateline NBC did a great experiment where a reporter had herself tested for BPA, phthalates and triclosan (the ingredient in antibacterial soaps). She changed her make-up, lotions and soaps to products that were free of these chemicals. She also avoided BPA exposure from canned foods, and in just ONE day, her levels plummeted. Then they tried the reverse, deliberately using products that contained endocrine disruptors as much as possible, which caused her levels to spike, and once again eliminating everything, her levels returned to almost zero. The point being… YES! Limiting exposure is important and does have an immediate impact! For a great primer on these chemicals, as well as the complete results of her experiment, I highly encourage you to check out both parts of the Dateline video.
What about PVC?
In addition to the chemicals above, many plastic toys are made from PVC. Taken from the HealthyStuff.org site, "From production to disposal, PVC is associated with the use and release of toxic chemicals. During the production phase, workers at PVC facilities, as well as residents in surrounding areas, may be exposed to vinyl chloride (the building block of PVC) and/or dioxin (an unwanted biproduct of PVC production), both of which are carcinogens." Phthalates are often added to PVC to make it more pliable, making it a toxic two for one. PVC...the thing some baby teethers and bath toys are made of!
To learn more about vinyl chloride and the risks of its manufacturing, "Blue Vinyl" is an excellent documentary about a woman, motivated by her hysterectomy for cervical cancer at the age of 25, looking into why her parents changing the siding of her childhood home to vinyl may be problematic. At the 2 minute mark of the trailer, there is a glimpse of the alarming information contained in this documentary.
Is plastic REALLY that bad for the environment?
First of all, pretty much all of the plastic in existence will not be going away for hundreds and hundreds of years, and that's a low estimate unless certain new techniques of using bacteria to digest it start to become more widely used. For the most part, plastic just gets broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, and then a shocking amount ends up in the oceans, where it can be ingested by small aquatic life and the toxins within it (I haven't even mentioned flame retardants yet!) can make their way up the food chain.
Evidence of this can be found in a large island the size of Texas, floating out in the Pacific Ocean. It is one of FIVE of these swirling plastic islands in existence, brought together by currents and winds. The plastic in the ocean is not only made up of debris from refuse, but also something called "nurdles" from plastic production. They are tiny pellets that are melted down and used to produce any number of plastic products and even packaging.
Many creatures mistake plastic trash and nurdles for food. Here is a photo of the contents of the stomach of an albatross, taken from an article at The Guardian. A quick google of "albatross plastic" will demonstrate this common problem with far more gruesome images.
I found these inexpensive wooden toys made in China - are they OK?
Well, the answer is yes and no. Certainly they are a better option than plastic, in the sense that they will biodegrade and not be on this planet forever and ever. They are not made with petroleum and no dioxins or plastic pellets were released into the environment with their production. However, there is a greater likelihood that they could be unsafe if they are produced in China. Even Melissa and Doug had a recall a few years back when high levels of the heavy metal barium were found in the paint of some toys.
When I really began this adventure into researching toxic chemicals, I can remember how shocked I was when searching the cpsc.gov site for lead recalls how many I found for wooden toys. Take this harmless looking drum that was part of a 2011 recall for lead.
The fact of the matter is, even beyond the safety of the paint used, there is another issue that some may or may not concern themselves with that is at stake as well - the ethical treatment of workers. Many of those cheap toys from China for children are probably made by children of almost the same age, or at the very least, an adult who is not making any money for the job.
There are so, so many fantastic options of made in USA toys, as well as others from Europe. As a person who cares about these things and one who has witnessed many conversations on the topic, generally people who are trying to avoid made in China items are less concerned about quantity of gifts, and would be perfectly happy if their child got just one quality gift, even if it's a small one.
What can you do about it?
I have dedicated a substantial amount of time to investigating toxins, and providing consumers with safe product choices. In the process, I also like to feature smaller, mostly USA based manufacturers. You can find even more information and a large variety of alternatives for toys and household items at The Mindful Home.
What are they made of?
I have not even touched upon one of my favorite topics - toxic flame retardants. Many synthetic trees, wreaths, mistletoe, fake poinsettia, etc... are made with PVC, but even if you can find products that say they are "PVC free"...
1. It's still probably made of plastic (see above regarding biodegrading)
2. It is most likely covered in flame retardants
Bromated fire retardants, sometimes known as PBDE's, are yet another set of endocrine disruptors. Some are also carcinogens and like the chemicals above, they are equally detrimental in many ways.
What about lead in Christmas lights?
Well, besides the PVC and the flame retardants, there is the small matter of heavy metals. Recently, plastic garlands and beads were tested and found to contain exceptionally high levels of heavy metals like lead. It is well known that Christmas lights are covered in lead, and most likely any vintage painted ornaments as well. Here is a source for lead free Christmas lights, and while I have not confirmed this personally, I was told that Ikea claims that they manufacture lead free lights, HOWEVER, according to them, they must be labeled "RoHS Compliant." If they don't say that on the package, I would assume they are covered in lead as well.
What can you do about it?
Look for decorations made of wool felt, wood, or even things like cranberries. Stick with natural materials. We were lucky enough to find a very unique local tree farm that not only sells trees that are chemical free, but are also grows them sustainably with stump culture. I realize that's an unusual find, but one could argue that farming trees is probably less of a drain on natural resources and the environment than PVC trees covered in flame retardants.
If you're crafty, try pinterest! This is our first year buying a tree, and I have found an abundance of ideas for making our own decorations with natural materials.
Not so crafty or don't have time? Etsy is another excellent resource for holiday decorations. I have highlighted a number of great vendors in the "Holiday Decor" section of my Ultimate Etsy Holiday Gift Guide. You can find some wonderful household and toy selections there as well. The bonus? You can feel great about supporting smaller crafters, many of which are right here in the US!
Amy Serotkin is dedicated to sustainable living and finding ways to eliminate toxins in her home. She is an avid organic gardener and cook, and is always looking for more ways to challenge herself to lessen her family's ecological imprint.
Her website, The Mindful Home, shares with consumers the information she's found on toxins and eco friendly products that help eliminate disposables or toxin exposure. She also hopes to highlight smaller retailers, crafters and manufacturers.