‘Tis the season to be jolly. For many, this symbolizes an all-access hall pass to indulge one’s taste buds along the chocolate-, cake-, cocktail-, and candy-lined corridors. While some choose to channel their inner Oompa Loompa between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Willy Wonka and that extra helping of pie may be the least of your worries.
The reality is, many of the non-food holiday items in your home can be silently wreaking havoc on your health throughout the season. A 2015 study analyzed consumer product chemicals in U.S. indoor dust and identified 45 chemicals “associated with health hazards such as cancer, endocrine/hormone disruption, and reproductive toxicity.” Imagine then, the plethora of holiday products we bring into our homes, completely unaware of the health dangers they may pose to ourselves, our pets, and our family members.
Here are five naughty toxins to be wary of and avoid this season.
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1. Festive Antibacterial Soap
While eliminating nasty germs and bacteria during cold and flu season is a good thing, it’s not so great if it has negative health effects. After a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned certain ingredients commonly used in antibacterial soap, including triclosan and triclocarban.
“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. In fact, “Some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term,” she said.
As always, use common sense and choose products that are earth-friendly, plant-based, and contain no synthetic fragrances. A good example is the ECOS Hand Soap that’s scented with 100 percent essential oils of lemongrass or lavender. Even after the ban goes into effect, chemicals such as benzethonium chloride and benzalkonium chloride could be used as a replacement from many manufacturers. Don’t get greenwashed! These belong to a group of chemicals called “quaternary ammoniums,” otherwise known as “quats.” There is science revealing health concerns associated with these chemicals.
2. Scented Candles and Air Fresheners
While holiday stress can certainly cause a headache here and there, your air freshener shouldn’t. A study conducted by the University of Bristol revealed air fresheners and aerosols can make babies and their mothers ill. Scientists found frequent use of both during pregnancy and early childhood was associated with higher levels of diarrhea, earaches, and other symptoms in infants, as well as headaches and depression in mothers. Not exactly a recipe for a happy holiday.
In addition to adding volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air you breathe, synthetic scented candles, plug-ins, and stick diffusers likely contain harsh chemicals like camphor, phenol, ethanol, formaldehyde (a carcinogen), xylene (affects the nervous system), naphthalene (a suspected carcinogen), and phthalates (linked to hormonal and reproductive development issues).
Opt instead for diffusers with 100 percent natural essential oils. Also, look for candles that use coconut, soy, or beeswax, not paraffin wax, which is petroleum-derived. You really can enjoy the natural smell of the holidays without the headache.
3. Cookie-Baking Nonstick Cookware
If you’re still cooking with nonstick cookware, it’s time to get unstuck. Yes, it offers convenience, but most nonstick cookware comes with a price tag on health. It’s manufactured with perfluorochemicals (PFCs), which create a stain-, stick-, and grease-resistant surface. But perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, is the breakdown product that releases toxins into the air once things heat up. It’s persistent in the environment and found in the blood of 95 percent of Americans tested.
The EPA created a PFOA Stewardship Program with eight of the top manufactures for a voluntary reduction in chemicals and emissions of PFOA by 2015. However, older cookware can still contain lots of it. PFOA is dubbed “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” by the EPA’s Science Advisory Review Panel (SAB). It’s best to stick with these healthy options for your holiday baking and cooking since the jury is still out on the newer chemicals being used to replace PFOA.
4. PVC Christmas Tree
While they may look real, most artificial Christmas trees are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the most toxic plastic. You can detect PVC by the resin identification number that is used for recycling purposes (aka the number inside the triangle). PVC will always be a No. 3. PVC trees can leach lead and cadmium, both listed on the California Proposition 65 as chemicals that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. As the material wears down, these can get into household dust and be ingested by children or pets. Also, PVC is a chlorinated plastic, which means the production of PVC emits dangerous dioxins into the air we breathe and in the oceans we eat from.
While many people prefer not to chop down a healthy tree for a few weeks of aesthetic bliss, there are healthy options that take a lesser toll on Mother Earth than a plastic tree, including:
- Rent a Live Potted Tree
How would you like a live potted tree delivered right to your doorstep? This option is a win-win because the tree is not killed and you get to enjoy the fresh scent of real pine, sans the guilt. Plus, the happy elves from the Living Christmas Company will even pick the tree up from you after the holidays, where it’ll continue to grow for another year. After confirming delivery in your area, you can order online and select ecological ornaments, LED lights, and gift certificates, or donate a tree to a needy family.
- Buy an LED Faux Tree
Many retailers are now offering beautiful faux trees that come prelit with LED lights for energy savings and that magical glow. They’re available in options such as silver, birch, bark, or white, offering a simple approach to decoration. I’ve seen them in every shape, size (from 2 feet up to 9), and color, conveniently available at retailers such as Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, and Z Gallerie. Some are shaped like a traditional tree, and others offer varying shapes so that you can enjoy your investment all year long. To save more on your energy bill, most come with an on/off switch or a built-in 24-hour timer that operates in six-hour increments.
5. CFL Bulbs
The holidays add that extra sparkle of light to our homes. But while the spiral-shaped compact fluorescent bulbs are great for energy efficiency, they create a health hazard in production and breakage. Most are imported from China, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to a low carbon footprint. The worst part is they contain small amounts of mercury, a toxic heavy metal. This presents a huge danger if a bulb breaks because mercury vapor can be released into the air. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency offers specific, step-by-step instructions of how to clean up and properly dispose of a broken CFL to protect the occupants of a building, especially children and pets. Considered universal waste, CFLs aren’t allowed in the trash by some cities, which require you to take them to a local recycling center or a household hazardous waste collection center.
Opt instead for solar lights outdoors and energy-efficient LED lights indoors to decorate your home for the holidays. They stay cool to the touch and do not pose a fire hazard, plus they’ll save you some serious green on your energy bill.
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Editor’s note: Originally published on December 2, 2016, this article was updated in November 2018.