What you need to know about lead in holiday lights
News media company CNN recently completed a study which shows that four ordinary brands of Christmas lights exhibit lead levels that are high enough to present a danger to children.
This level, found on the surfaces of light strings via an industry standard called a “wipe test,” exceeded the 15-microgram per deciliter (ug/dl: 4/10 of a cup) per day recommendation from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC.
How does this lead get from a string of lights into a child’s highly vulnerable body? It’s as easy as touching the string on the tree and then picking and eating a candy cane.
“But the candy cane is wrapped!” You point out. Indeed it is, but unwrapping it from its clear and clingy protective coat actually transfers more lead from a child’s hands to the surface of the candy. Unwrapped cookies actually fare better, since a child usually holds these at one location and eats around the edges. In any case, for environmentally conscious Christmas celebrants, the edible tree is a real hazard if it is also strung with lights which haven’t been checked for their lead content.
It isn’t a conspiracy. Lighting manufacturers readily admit there is lead in the PVC (polyvinyl chloride) used to insulate holiday lights from contact with water, or to prevent exposed wires which could cause a fire or electrocution. Leaded PVC is also found in mini-blinds and plastic toys. The mini-blind connection was first noted in 1996, when the CPSC analyzed blinds being imported from China, Taiwan, Mexico and Indonesia.
Over time, in the presence of sunlight and heat, the PVC portion of blinds, toys and light strings deteriorates, releasing lead as a form of “dust” indistinguishable from ordinary household dust.
This use of lead is entirely legal, as it prevents the otherwise rapid breakdown of PVC insulation. In spite of that, the amount of surface lead surprised researchers, most notably child environmental health specialist Dr. Leo Trasande, Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
Dr. Trasande stated unequivocally that there is no level at which lead is safe. This is the same message health professionals give regarding asbestos, the only known cause of malignant pleural mesothelioma, or MSM.
In Dr. Trasande’s estimation, one ug/dl is enough to cause cognitive impairment in the very young. Fifteen units is a no-brainer. Cognitive impairment is defined as an inability to think, reason, concentrate, develop ideas, and remember. The one ug/dl is the lowest level of lead (in the bloodstream) that current technology can detect.
It should come as no surprise that Wal-Mart, the world’s largest product-import merchandiser, had the highest levels of surface lead in its store-brand Christmas lights. Reading as high as 132.7 micrograms, these lights delivered eight times as much lead as recommended by the CPSC and various health agencies.
Runner up was GE, with a maximum level of 109.1. Sylvania was third highest, at a max 70.3 mg/dl, and Philips – a global lighting and electronics innovator which also makes healthcare equipment – covered the board, with lighting strings ranged from a heartening 3.2 mg/dl to over 107.
To sum up the findings, 54 percent of holiday lights examined in the study had lead levels in excess of (and sometimes far in excess of) the amount regulators allow in children’s products. The most egregious examples exceeded this limit by as much as 30 times, or 450mg/dl.
The four manufacturers whose lights were tested by CNN responded, when informed of the lead levels, that they were seriously concerned about safety. No information was provided on how they planned to mitigate the danger, however.
So what can you, the parent, do to prevent lead contamination? According to the Ecology Center, which operates the HealtyStuff.org website, adults who string or otherwise handle holiday lights should wash their hands every time they leave off untangling or hanging lights. This is particularly important before touching food, or ingredients destined to become food.
In addition, the CPSC notes that holiday lights are not a product designed to be used by children, so logically children should not be allowed to touch them. Not while they are unplugged and strung across the floor, and not when they are on the tree. In the case of an edible Christmas tree, children should ask an adult to retrieve the item for them.
And, just to make sure they are safe, insist that your little ones always wash their hands before eating, just in case one of them is practicing on the tree preparatory to becoming a cat burglar!