Happy Non-Hazardous Holidays

It’s that magical time when consumer protection agencies release their annual lists of hazardous toys and toxic Christmas decorations. We’ll get to this year’s list in a moment. But first, let us acknowledge, it used to be worse.

A popular home-made Christmas decoration of years gone by called for filling a glass canister with old-fashioned naphthalene mothballs. Then the decorator added water, baking soda, and either vinegar or citric acid. A chemical reaction caused the mothballs to “dance” in the canister.

“Children will love this unique decoration at Christmas time!” 1950s homemaker magazines said. The magazines didn’t mention that naphthalene is a neurotoxin and possibly carcinogenic. Ingesting or inhaling naphthalene can make an adult human very sick and can kill a dog or cat. We don’t want to know what would happen if a small child got his or her hands on the dancing “snowballs.”

(For the record, most chemical mothballs sold these days contain paradichlorobenzene, which is also dangerous, rather than naphthalene. The new-fangled mothballs are heavier and won’t “dance,” so the trick doesn’t work.)

If the mothballs didn’t get you, the artificial snow might. Once you could buy bags of asbestos “snowflakes” to sprinkle on and around the tree. (Fun fact: The snow that fell in the final scene of Holiday Inn, as Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas,” was asbestos.) Although no longer manufactured, asbestos snow can still be found at holiday rummage sales and on eBay. If inhaled, the “snowflakes” could give you a number of asbestos-related lung diseases, including mesothelioma.

However, a century ago the asbestos snow seemed like a good safety precaution. In those days people still decorated their trees with lit candles, which (combined with paper garlands and cotton snow) made a jim-dandy fire hazard. A newspaper column from 1915 advised readers to use asbestos instead of cotton for artificial snow. “Remember, ‘a House of Merriment is far better than a House of Mourning,’” it said.

Asbestos was sometimes used in tree skirts and decorations, as well, so older decorations should be handled with caution. Also, homeowners who keep their Christmas decorations in the attics of older homes might be exposing themselves to small fibers of asbestos insulation as they decorate for the holidays.

And there was a time when toy planes and trucks had sharp metal edges, and toys might be covered in lead-based paint. So things are better now, aren’t they?

Well, yes, mostly, but they are not perfect. As recently as 2007 asbestos was turning up in children’s toys, such as a junior crime lab forensics kit and modeling clay. The consumer protection agencies do have to keep on their toes.

The United States Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), an independent consumer-advocate organization, recently released its annual “Trouble in Toyland” report. There is no asbestos in this year’s report, but there are other toxins.

PIRG says lead in toys continues to be a problem. For example, the Captain America Soft Shield, for ages two and up, was found to contain 29 times the legal standard for lead. Lead can damage the nervous system and is especially damaging to the brains of young children.

A Ninja Turtles pencil case contained excessive levels of cadmium as well as one of six phthalates banned from toys. Cadmium is extremely toxic; even trace amounts can be dangerous.

Phthalates are chemicals used in plastic to keep it from becoming brittle. Phthalates are known to leach out of the plastic over time, and because they are widely used we all phthalates in our bodies now. The dangers are still being researched, but among the suspected problems are links to ashthma, birth defects and hormonal problems.

And, of course, toys can have small parts that end up stuck in childrens’ throats or stomachs. Marbles, balloons, and small magnets require special vigilance, PIRG says.

On the bright side — although older artificial trees may contain toxins, trees manufactured after the 1990s are safer. Real trees might contain pesticides and molds, and they can also catch on fire, although they are not nearly as much of a fire hazard as unattended candles.

And yes, there is a risk of electrocution from electric Christmas lights, especially if mice in your attic have nibbled away the insulation. Take care.

Kissing under mistletoe has been a holiday tradition since medieval times, at least. Mistletoe is toxic and will make you very sick if you eat it, although it probably won’t kill you. Cheerful red poinsettias have a reputation for being poisonous, especially to pets, but it appears this is an old wives’ tale. So be careful with the mistletoe, but fill your home with poinsettias to your heart’s content.