Artificial Christmas trees are typically cut from compressed polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sheets. But there's also a newer technology that allows manufacturers to create branch tips that are made from injection-molded polyethylene (PE) plastic using copies of live tree needles. It creates a more realistic look and feel and creates a better solution for a non-toxic artificial Christmas tree.
As we talked about last year, lead is a big concern in Christmas decorations because it's often used as a stabilizer in PVC plastic. It's a neurotoxin that can cause learning disorders, brain and nerve damage, hearing problems, stunted growth, and digestive problems. Scientists are increasingly convinced that there is no safe level of lead exposure, especially for young children. The EPA has also listed lead as a probable human carcinogen.
Tips for Choosing a Non-toxic Artificial Christmas Tree
Many artificial Christmas trees are PE with an infill of PVC branches which are made up of flat strips, so use the following tips to make locating polyethylene branches easier:
- Keep an eye out for a mention of “molded tip” in the product description.
- You'll notice the difference right away because the needles are three-dimensional rather than flat.
- According to Balsam Hills, while PE trees are constructed differently than PVC artificial Christmas trees, it is important to note that they often have PVC needles incorporated into their construction. In general, the molded PE tips are toward the outside of the tree, while the PVC needles are used to fill in the backs of the branches.
- Keep in mind that pre-lit Christmas trees are often wrapped with lights strings encased in PVC. In 2010 Healthy Toys released a report showing that 4 out of 5 sets of string lights tested contained lead, so be sure to keep them out of reach of children.
- Nearly all artificial Christmas trees seem to be made with flame retardants, so be sure to keep the area around them dust-free (more info on that below)
Are 100% PVC Free Christmas Trees Still Available?
They used to be, but we've just learned (as of October 2017) that the one company making 100% PVC-free Christmas trees is no longer in business! 🙁
We highly recommend you go with real Christmas trees unless you're allergic to them until we can find non-toxic Christmas trees again. Otherwise, you can go a with PE + PVC mix:
- Balsam Hill offers several trees that are made with True Needle™ technology using 70-80% PE: the Vermont White Spruce (80% PE), the Balsam Fir (70% PE) and the Woodland Spruce tree (64% PE).
- National Tree offers the “Feel-Real” Douglas Fir and “Feel-Real” Norway Spruce Hinged Trees that are made with a mix of PE and PVC.
- NO LONGER AVAILABLE: The Williamsburg Pine is made specifically to be 100% PVC-free. It's only material is PE, but be sure to buy the unlit version since the lights on the pre-lit trees are not PVC-free. (*NOTE: This tree is already sold out as of 11/19/16, dang it!) We recently interviewed the designer of this unique tree about PVC, lead and flame retardants in Christmas decorations, so be sure to read it here to get the inside scoop.
- NO LONGER AVAILABLE: The unlit Charlotte Fir is a tree made of 100% PE. The manufacturer did tell us that it has a wrap around the pole that's made of PVC, but it can be removed. Still a far safer option than trees made of PVC.
My husband and I still prefer real Christmas trees. We've made it a family tradition to take the kids on a trek to find the perfect live tree each year. We typically choose a beautiful blue-green fir and enjoy the fresh aroma through the holidays. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to support your local small business owners too.
What to Do if You Have a PVC Christmas Tree
Let's start with the good news: if you have an older tree, it off-gasses those volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for about four weeks. (NOTE: If you're buying a new PVC tree this year, plan ahead and be sure to set it out in the garage and let it off-gas for a several weeks before bringing it inside)
This means that your main concern will be the chemicals in PVC (i.e. lead, phthalates, and possibly flame retardants) that continue to slough off and end up in the dust around the tree.
Here's how to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals in Christmas trees:
- Damp mop and/or vacuum the whole area on a regular basis (learn more about how to do it really well here)
- Teach your kiddos not to touch the tree (seriously – it doesn't take much lead to cause a problem in growing children!)
- Wear gloves when assembling the tree – especially if you're pregnant
- Save up for a safer Christmas tree next year!