The Problem with Plastic Christmas Ornaments

A new study reveals a harmful industrial chemical in some plastic Christmas ornaments. Here are a few alternatives.

December 3, 2009

He looks innocent, but be careful if he's not actually made of gingerbread.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The gingerbread man of old folklore fame was sort of obnoxious, but the one hanging on your Christmas tree could be downright dangerous. A new study published in the journal Ground Water Monitoring & Remediation found that little plastic gingerbread men and other ornaments like it were releasing extremely high levels of a harmful industrial chemical from the boxes in which they were stored.

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THE DETAILS: The researchers stumbled onto their discovery while researching groundwater contaminants near an Air Force base outside Salt Lake City, says lead author William Doucette, PhD, environmental chemist and professor at Utah State University. The Hill Air Force Base had been monitoring the indoor air of homes around a former aircraft-maintenance facility with local groundwater that was contaminated with the solvent 1,2-dichlorethane (DCA), which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)considers a possible human carcinogen. Despite remediation efforts by the Air Force, some homes in the area still had detectable levels of 1,2-DCA, and tests revealed that some homes that weren't situated near contaminated groundwater had high levels, as well. The house with the highest levels was investigated further, and after a bit of trial and error, the investigators pinpointed the source of contamination as a plastic container housing Christmas ornaments. The container was emitting an astonishing 290 micrograms per cubic meter of the chemical (levels in the rest of the house ranged from 0.41 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter). They removed the ornaments and tested each one individually to reveal that a "polyresin" plastic Christmas ornament in the shape of a gingerbread man was the culprit. The researchers then went to a nearby dollar store to find ornaments similar in appearance and material, and those too were found to contain high levels of 1,2-DCA.

WHAT IT MEANS: While lead paint seems to grab most of the attention when it comes to contaminated Christmas decorations, it appears that there may be a host of other questionable chemicals coming from cheap plastic products. "What's disturbing is that several homes had multiple ornaments," says Doucette, noting that all the ornaments combined were emitting levels in the range the EPA predicts could cause cancer, between 0.094 and 9.4 micrograms per cubic meter. His tests also revealed that an ornament could theoretically emit the toxic chemical for up to 345 days. Because all the ornaments seemed to come from one factory in China, he said, he's not sure how widespread the problem is. Regardless, he notes that the chemical is banned from use by U.S. manufacturers.

Keep your indoor air clean by favoring ornaments made from natural materials:

• Phase out plastic ornaments. 1,2-DCA is used to harden a variety of plastics, and that's one reason Doucette suspects it found its way into the plastic ornaments he found. At the same time, the chemicals used to soften plastics and keep them pliable, phthalates, have been found to interfere with human hormonal systems. Your best defense: Choose decorations made from cloth, glass, crystal, or even clay, and avoid plastics.

• Pay attention to the paint, not just the material. Along with those questionable chemicals, lead paint is a problem on holiday ornaments. Over the past few years, a few companies have recalled ornaments due to lead-paint contamination. Choose ornaments made from cloth, glass, crystal, or even clay that don't need to be painted.

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