Christmas decorations are often made with toxic chemicals, so every winter we welcome the challenge of finding as many PVC and lead free Christmas trees as possible so families can enjoy the holiday season without worrying. This year we added flame retardants to the list too and ended up connecting with an expert who was kind enough to share his hard-earned insights about all three concerns.
How One Retailer Made 100% PVC-free Christmas Trees Possible
Twelve years ago Bill and his wife Debbie, founders of ChristmasTreeForMe.com, became aware of consumers concerns about lead, which is often used as a stabilizer in PVC Christmas decorations. We didn't learn about this issue until 2008 so needless to say, they were way ahead of the curve!
In order to address consumer concern, they offered their first polyethylene (PE) Christmas tree with a PVC wrap on the center pole in 2004 tree, but the demand wasn't there just yet. Then in 2009, customers began calling to request a 100% PVC-free (and therefore lead-free) tree. It simply didn't exist, so Bill and Debbie traveled to their manufacturing plant and worked to co-design the well-known Williamsburg 100% PE tree (unlit version). They developed a process where the center pole was coated with sawdust to make it appear more realistic without the use of PVC plastic.
He explained that the process was arduous because manufacturers weren't happy about taking on such small runs (reminds me of the search for a BPA-free can lining!). These unique trees are also very time consuming because they have to be built by hand, underlining the higher cost overall.
It's so great to finally learn the backstory on this process! It sure explains why there are so few PVC-free options available.
What About Flame Retardants in Christmas Decorations?
My conversation with Bill actually started when I contacted him to see if he knew whether flame retardants were added during manufacturing or sprayed on afterward. I guess this is the big year for questions about flame retardants in Christmas trees, because they've been fielding the same question from consumers.
Bill explained that you're most likely not going to find a fire retardant-free tree, because those chemicals are added to the plastic before the plastic arrives at the Christmas tree factory. When I asked if that could be changed, he said it would require companies like his to do such a massive amount of volume that it would allow them to go to all the way back to the manufacturer's polyethylene/PVC supplier and insist on having it tested to make sure there are no flame retardants added. As it turns out, the testing itself would also be utterly cost-prohibitive (reminiscent of how impossible it is to make stainless steel bottles in the U.S.).
What a bummer. Just another reason to be careful when putting your tree up and then keeping the area around it dust-free.
The Reality of Lead in Christmas Lights
You may be surprised to know that Bill doesn't see a time in the near future where Christmas lights will be truly lead-free.
He explained that all Christmas lights have some lead in them. Yes, even RoHS compliant lights, which merely have to test at 1000 ppm of lead or less (10 times higher than the US limit for paint on toys!). Oy! We've obviously got more research to do on RoHS and how it works…
Bill takes time each year to research testing requirements for Christmas light strands. Each year the result is the same. All 120 volt power cords (for reading lamps, computers, TV’s, refrigerators, Christmas lights, etc) all must pass pliability tests. While these pliability tests do not specifically require the use of PVC with traces of lead, the combination of PVC and lead is the most cost effective with the least environmental impact.
In Bill's understanding, the lead is there to make it more pliable so that over time the wire within the strand does not become exposed and present a shock hazard. So the long and the short of it is that he simply recommends that kids not handle the Christmas tree or its string of lights.
Common sense, right? You'd sure think so, but that's not always the case. All you have to do is look at the myriad photos of babies wrapped in Christmas lights to make you wonder…
Bottom Line: Choose Trustworthy Companies
As we always say, the manufacturer often plays the most important role in a product's safety (not so much the country of origin). You can be sure that our government isn't going to protect you from unlabeled, untested, and unsafe chemicals in Christmas decorations.
Today Bill and Debbie run a successful business and follow up with customer concerns personally. Unlike many other tree purveyors, they still personally evaluate every product they sell and have an excellent understanding of the entire manufacturing process and what their customers are looking for. And we can vouch for that after communicating with so many Christmas tree sellers over the years.
Keep on researching before you buy and continue voting with your dollars!
P.S. Yes, Christmas Tree For Me still sells PVC trees because a lot of people still want them. They do ask their manufacturer to test each year for lead and it's always been less than 300 ppm in their own trees. Better, but not perfect – so be sure to follow our guidelines for what do when you can't afford to buy a PVC-free tree.
P.P.S. Bill recommends you grab a 3M lead testing kit like the one recommended by Lead Safe America to test the Christmas tree you end up purchasing. He actually offers his customers money back guarantee if they test it themselves and they find lead (although that's never happened!).