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Artificial Christmas Trees: Are They Good for Your Health?

Sometimes in trying to solve one health problem, you create entirely new ones. That seems to be the case when you purchase an artificial Christmas tree to avoid the allergies and asthma sometimes associated with mold from real trees.

In this post, learn about the pros and cons of artificial Christmas trees, and how to reduce the potential health issues they introduce.

What’s Great About Artificial Trees

It’s easy to see the appeal of an artificial Christmas tree. You don’t have to water it or pick up the needles that a real tree continuously sheds. And no sap! Plus, you buy the tree once and use it until eventually the “branches” break off from being folded out too many Christmases. They do cost a bit more; for a decent 7.5-foot artificial tree, you’ll easily pay $200 compared to around $75 for a real tree of the same height.

For some people, real Christmas trees are not an option due to issues with mold. WebMD describes a study that tracked mold spore levels for 14 days, starting from the moment a Christmas tree was placed in a house. Spore counts held at 800 spores per cubic meter for the first three days and rose to a surprising 5,000 spores per cubic meter by day 14.

If you have allergies and asthma triggered by mold, you have a couple of options: forego having a tree altogether or purchase an artificial one. Should do decide to purchase an artificial one, it’s important to know the health risks of these trees and how to avoid or reduce them.

What’s Not So Great About Artificial Trees

RTK Environmental cites a 2002 study by the University of North Carolina at Asheville that found most artificial trees are made of two toxic items—the plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and lead.

Unfortunately, as the green parts of your artificial tree break down, they produce lead dust. If you have children, especially under the age of six, lead exposure is serious business. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no level of lead in the blood is safe. If you have pets, you should be worried about their lead exposure, too.

PVCs should concern you as much as lead exposure. Men’s Health Magazine quotes Glenn Harnett, MD, a chief medical officer from a leading urgent care provider saying, “PVC also releases gases known as volatile organic compounds, which are gases that can irritate the eyes, nose, and lungs.” The same article also notes that PVCs often contain phthalates, endocrine disrupters that can lower your testosterone level.

By the way, your strands of Christmas lights? They often contain PVCs in the green plastic that covers the cords.

Reducing Exposure to Toxins from Artificial Trees

Dr. Harnett goes on to say that artificial trees off gas the most when you first open the box. He recommends leaving the tree outside to air out for a while before you bring it inside to decorate. He also advises disposing of your artificial tree before it begins to significantly break down—after about nine years. Plus, always wash your hands after touching the tree or Christmas light cords to reduce your lead dust exposure.

The Soft Landing suggests that you can buy artificial Christmas trees that are free of PVCs or have a reduced percentage of the toxic chemical. These non-toxic trees use polyethylene (PE) rather than PVC plastic to form the needles and other green parts of the tree. The article goes on to explain that you can recognize them easily by touch; instead of having two-dimensional needles, they have three-dimensional molded needles.

PE artificial trees may cost a tiny bit more, but they’re definitely worth the reduced health concern. Good luck finding one that is truly all PE or low PVC, though. They sell out quickly. Keep checking back with the Soft Landing article for updates on new PVC-free (or reduced PVC) artificial trees.

If you don’t have allergies or health reactions to mold, consider getting a real tree. It’s better for the environment and your health. And for the kid in all of us, it’s fun to go look for the perfect tree at a tree farm or out in the woods. The best part about real trees? They smell like Christmas!