Have Yourself a Merry (and Non-Toxic!) Christmas

IMG_5821Just like the folks at Fox News say, at my house every year there is a War on Christmas. A War on Christmas hazards, that is.

I actually get all ooey gooey over Christmas. I love bedecking the mantel with snowmen (where are all the snow ladies, anyway?), reciting the Night before Christmas until even Maya is rolling her eyes, and I’ve already festooned our house iPod with overly cheerful holiday tunes.

But I’ll skip the excessive materialism, toxic chemicals, and baubles made by enslaved children, thank you very much. Or at least give it the old elfin try.

I’ve been making my list, and checking it twice. So here’s a few things to think about this holiday season as you contemplate the true meaning of Christmas:

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O Christmas Tree

If you can find a source for organic trees — or find the time to go get your own — this is worth doing. Ours comes conveniently from a lovely neighbor in Takoma Park, who runs a CSA farm and also cultivates sustainable, organic trees.

Why go organic? Keep in mind that trees are brought into your house in the middle of winter, when you are least likely to open the windows, and the needles tend to get everywhere. While no one appears to have measured pesticide exposure in the home from bringing in a Christmas tree, this is an utterly avoidable risk, and we do know that trees are sprayed liberally with nasty pesticides and fungicides. In places like Oregon, the pesticide atrazine is sprayed from the trees aerially on Christmas tree farms, and such indicriminate spraying harms both animals and water quality.

Need more convincing? Here’s two well done articles, one from the New York Times, and another recent piece that notes:

No independent, comprehensive studies are widely available on how much pesticide residue is released once a tree is set up in a warm home environment. However, atrazine and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals are nonmonotonic, meaning even at extremely low exposure levels, damage can occur.

While you’re at it, be aware that conventional liquid tree food is full of toxins, and are in a bowl which can be lapped up by the dog or splashed in by a toddler. There’s no point in going organic halfway, particularly when it’s so easy to make tree food with sugar, lemons and water (or with store-bought lemonade if you like). I use half a lemon, fresh squeezed and a tablespoon of sugar in as much water as needed (the proportions aren’t picky).

Although natural is best, keep in mind that many holiday decorating plants are quite toxic if eaten. Both holly and mistletoe berries are very poisonous, and can even be fatal if consumed by children. Bittersweet, boxwood, and even pine can also cause problems if eaten. So hang those wreaths high!

Allergies can be an issue too. And if you live someplace like South Texas, as the allergist Dr. Claudia Miller wrote to me today, be very wary of the evergreens like the Texas Mountain Cedar, which have, as she wrote, “some of the highest pollen counts known to mankind.” They pollinate right in time for Christmas, and unsuspecting folks have been known to develop allergies overnight from bringing them indoors.

Even with all this, the natural options are preferable, because artificial trees and fake greenery are typically made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a terrible plastic that off-gasses, mixed with lead, a potent and notorious neuro-toxin. Again, the heath risks are not clear. As one study concluded:

Results from these experiments show that, while the average artificial Christmas tree does not present a significant exposure risk, in the worst-case scenarios a substantial health risk to young children is quite possible.

Another article debunks the notion that fake trees are somehow “greener” (after all, PVC is not a biodegradable material), and describes a troubling federal study on exposures:

In a 2008 report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a multi-agency review panel on U.S. children’s exposure to lead noted, “Artificial Christmas trees made of PVC also degrade under normal conditions. About 50 million U.S. households have artificial Christmas trees, of which about 20 million are at least nine years old, the point at which dangerous lead exposures can occur.”

Smith explained, “Recent studies have found that as plastic trees age, they can start to release a kind of lead dust into your home. That alone could have a real impact on how long we want to keep an artificial tree before replacing it – perhaps with a live tree.”

Why bring these risks into your home? There are so many other ways to decorate, as well as more natural options for greenery! I heartily recommend tchotchkes as one way to go.

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The Stars Are Brightly Shining

Sadly, Christmas lights are also a problem: most commercial lights (like most appliance cords, btw) are made of a mix of PVC and lead as well. Here’s what one lightmaker says:

The lead in holiday string lights is used as an additive to the Polyvinyl Chloride wire covering. The lead acts as a heat resistant insulator and is also used to help stabilize the coloring of the wire. All PVC contains some sort of metal stabilizer including lead, cadmium or tin. Christmas lights have contained lead since they have used PVC as an insulating coating and pose no danger with normal use. Lead containing PVC is used in many common household applications including the PVC piping used to deliver our drinking water, other electrical cords which are insulated with PVC, and even car keys.

You should wear gloves, ideally, when sorting them out from their inevitable spaghetti tangle, and/or wash your hands well after hanging them up. Do not let kids touch or play with them either, obviously. She does not cite a source, but toxics expert Debra Lynn Dadd does say “they are fine when hanging. They don’t outgas lead, you just don’t want to touch them.”

For better options, some LED lights — allegedly such as those sold by Ikea or this Environmental Lighting site — meet the European Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), which requires them to be virtually lead-free. I did schlepp to Ikea last year to look at the LED options, which was a special kind of awful given the amount of off-gassing particle-board in any Ikea, but I did not like the LED lights at all. They were faint, tiny and gave off a cold white light without enough twinkle to be Christmas-y.

I also checked out the Environmental Lighting site, but you need to buy a controller and power source for the lights, which makes changing to LED a significant investment of around $100 or so.

When I think of the amount of PVC and lead involved in traditional lights, it makes me sad. At least some places have recycling programs for them (and some LED sellers offer discounts in exchange)! And perhaps the LED types will improve over time. If folks are aware of nicer LED options, please do let me know.

Candles are also a common holiday touch, and a nice one at that! Unfortunately, conventional candles are made of paraffin wax, and many wicks contain lead. From Healthy Child, Healthy World:

Though the US Consumer Product Safety Commission asked candle manufacturers to replace lead wicks with zinc, compliance is voluntary and imported candles are not checked; in addition, commercial-grade zinc and zinc alloys used in wicks contain lead.

Aside from the wick, the candle wax can also be a respiratory irritant. Wax can be made of petroleum paraffin, which emits toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde when burned (these are carcinogens, neurotoxins, and reproductive toxins).

And the now-ubiquitous scented ones use chemical scents that typically contain pthalates, a chemical used in fragrances for many household items that has been linked to diabetes and heart disease, among other health problems. At our house, we do have some regular unscented candles to use as decorations, but we only burn the ones that are natural beeswax.

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Deck the Halls 

Those lovely ornaments on the tree are a source of additional concern. They’ve been known to contain lead paint or mercury (some are even called “mercury glass” ornaments!), so be sure that they do not get handled or mouthed by children.

And speaking of children, you may be interested to know that on December 5th, 14 children in India were freed from enslavement in a sweatshop where they were working to make Christmas ornaments for Western customers. Where you can, it’s always best to buy Fair Trade, to buy them from craftspeople, or make your own decorations. Ten Thousand Villages, Serrv, and Fair Indigo are great resources for these, which also make wonderful gifts!

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Joy to the World

I’ll be posting soon with a round of gift options on the greener side and some DIY ideas for presents. In the meantime, I’ll try to resurrect the real spirit of Christmas (and shake off the toxic bah-humbugs) by commending to you some of my favorite, more off-beat, holiday tunes.

First, what could possibly be a better deal than Sufjan Steven’s wonderful 4-disc Christmas music set for a cool $15? Simply called “Songs for Christmas,” these are ethereal takes on familiar songs, alongside his own eclectic synth-folk signature songwriting. (Just order the actual box-set, because it comes with some extras and a cute little book.) Along similar lines, I adore the un-done beauty of Low’s album, “Christmas,” and especially am grateful for “Just Like Christmas,” which is Low at it’s pop-highest.

Because nothing says the holidays like a nostalgic political anthem, I’ll also throw in a plea for you to give Steve Earle’s earnestly progressive “Christmastime in Washington” a listen, if only just to recall what the early aughts felt like ’round these parts. And then, last but not least, kick up your heels and stoke your indignation about why the GOP won’t bend to reason on tax rates for the wealthy by indulging in The Kinks’ completely awesome, rockin’ ode to Xmas equality: “Father Christmas.”

Have a safe and happy holiday!

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How it Ought to Be, One Dollar at a Time

I was at the park last week, chatting with a friend about how hard it is to figure out what toxic stuff is in our food. An acquaintance of ours within earshot leaned in and said, a little pointedly, “you know, even if you got rid of all the chemicals, you still won’t live forever.”

The jibe stuck with me, because it points back to what the New York Times profile of my alleged hazmat parenting also got completely wrong. While it may be the case that a protective impulse — like getting that cancer-causing couch out of my living room — is a strong motivator, it’s certainly not the only one.

After all, I don’t really want to live forever, and there’s so much potentially harmful stuff in our environment that I harbor no illusion that even my best efforts can address it.

It’s not actually about my health, or even my daughter’s, most of the time. Instead — and I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way — it’s a matter of using my purchasing decisions as another way to express my values: as a way of voting with my dollars for the world I want, and of working hard, and sometimes too hard, to find the companies that are allies in this vision.

It’s also about justice. I remain outraged that companies can keep secrets about the hazards of products in our homes and what they know about their health impacts. I’ve worked with grieving parents who had lost a child or loved one due to a defective product, and you don’t forget their sadness, or the sense that a more caring approach is sorely needed.

In fact, I’ve done advocacy work for progressive causes for years. What sense would it possibly make to use that income to pay companies that do things that are counter to the world I’ve been working for? Of course, I hasten to add, anyone can feel this way about they way they spend their money, regardless of how they made it in the first place.

And there are lots of signs that people do subscribe to conscientious consumption — from the popularity of Annie Leonard’s original Story of Stuff video, to the growth of certification regimes for products from chocolate to lumber, to the burgeoning homesteading movement, to the fact that organic produce, even with its higher price-tag, is now ubiquitous.

As our recession drags on, there is also a sense that all of us with our diminished spending power would like to stop and think a little more before we buy. Obviously, this is not a new idea. As my dad wrote once, Aldo Leopold, the great environmental philosopher, coined the phrase “intelligent consumption” (pdf). I’ll note that this was, sadly, long before much was ever intelligent about it.

As we all know in our hearts, as consumers in this moment of mass-produced commercialization, we participate in so many systems — many global in nature, and many of which are hidden behind a virtual information blockade. We never meet the agricultural workers — including children — here in the U.S. or abroad that pick our food, the factory workers at places like Foxconn in China that make our gadgets or household goods, or the trafficked and enslaved adolescents that provide 40 percent of the world’s cacao beans for chocolate.

Most well-bedecked Western homes likely include hundreds of items. Yet we have no idea how they were made, where they came from, who has handled them, and whether suffering — workers’ or ours — is involved.

But once we acknowledge that we are, in some broad way, responsible for this chain of production, of course, it can be a crushing feeling. The questions multiply, and you must push through the discomfort, relinquish the squishy space you lived in before you asked any probing questions, and look at whatever you find.

Here’s my real point: staying receptive and open, when you can, to asking those hard questions is the only real step needed to engage with the growing movement about the ethics of consumption. We all feel so guilty, whenever we pause to think, that it’s critical to understand that integrating your values into whatever you buy is a process, not an end result.

Given how complicated it is, you’re unlikely to get to a place where you can ever look around your house and feel completely at peace. But that’s no reason not to start digging in. It’s perfectly fine to tackle one thing, and then another, and not everything at once, doing it as you can afford to, and as you can mentally afford to consider the change.

Actually, it’s the orientation to thinking about something that matters: the willingness to have your ears perked up and your nose open to something smelly, and to listen to your gut when a decision feels like less than what you really could do.

And here’s what else I’d really love you to know: if you let one small belief-driven change into your life, and take it seriously, other issues and concerns will also find a way in. The changes you make will grow into a habit over time, and after a little while, your choices will be transformed. The only real trick is to believe that what you do matters in the first place.

And yes, it’s true that we can’t shop our way to a better world. We still need lawmakers to make better rules. To get these rules, all of us must make full use of the still-functioning parts of our democracy. So we should pick up the phone to Congress, write letters and do the organizing it takes to enact chemical reform, improve conditions for workers, end modern slavery, and manage our resources and wildlife sensibly.

That said, most days, all of us also consume. When we do, we can look for ways to buy better stuff, or buy local, certified, organic, hand-made, fair trade, or used goods, or even to make things ourselves. We should tackle what we can, when we can. Shrug it off when we fail, and try again tomorrow.

And if this list sounds like a left-wing snob’s fantasy la-la land, well, so be it. We should be quietly confident about making an effort, rather than self-conscious or awkward. It’s not, actually, about being “holier-than-thou” so much as “this is what I want the world to be.”

It’s about taking some power back from the corporations: replacing “buyer beware” with “buyer believe.” And it’s certainly not about living forever so much as living my hopes for the world, for however long I am around and whenever I can make it work.

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What’s your process of thinking about what matters to you when you buy stuff? What changes have you made that you feel good about? And what’s next on your list?