“Chemicals are everywhere, so why bother paying attention?” is echoed across mainstream America and beyond. The reason for this attitude is obvious; it’s called “overwhelm.” When something seems too big to go up against, there can be a tendency to throw your arms up in the air and give up. This is why we’re here—to help you simplify, and break down larger-than-life information into bite size pieces. With our handy Non-Toxic Christmas Tree Buying Guide, we hope to make your Christmas Tree shopping a little easier, and your home a lot healthier.
By Jennifer Wolff-Gillispie
December is a special time of year. You can feel an almost tangible tingle of excitement, making preparations for family, and focusing your heart on the warmth of giving. If you celebrate Yuletide, you may have a tradition of “decking the halls,” which includes welcoming the spirit of the season by decorating a beautiful Christmas Tree.
Donned with lights and ornaments, tinsel and garland, and perhaps lovely handmade pieces of art, the heavenly aroma is like no other if you’ve chosen a living tree. From small “Charlie Brown” versions to giant, glorious ceiling-scraping beauties, they undoubtedly reflect the cozy, snug feelings they are meant to evoke.
However, if you purchase a sprayed tree from one of the many Christmas Tree lots across the country, your spectacular fir, spruce, cedar, or pine, might just make you chronically sick.
Julie Madison-Jamil moved to Oregon City, Oregon in 2016 and had dreams of starting a small, organic farm. Not long after she arrived, her multiple flocks of poultry began dying. Immediately, Julie had a suspicion why her birds were declining, and decided to take the deceased birds in for a necropsy.
It was revealed her poultry had cancer and liver damage, amongst other ailments. She felt confirmed that her gut instinct was right. When the nearby Christmas Tree farms sprayed their trees, Julie said, “You can taste it, and you can smell it.”
What was that “spray” Julie was tasting and smelling? After complaining to the neighboring farms about the noxious smell, she formally submitted a complaint to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, and discovered the source of the problem—chlorpyrifos. This chemical pesticide that at one point was close to being banned, is still in use today.
Fortunately, a ruling on April 29, 2021 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals forced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “revoke all tolerances for chlorpyrifos, or modify the tolerances to conform with federal law.” Unfortunately, this only changes the quantity allowed to be residual on the product, and not the actual ability to use it.
Even worse, chlorpyrifos isn’t the only chemical sprayed on trees. A recent survey from the USDA, which gathered information from 6 states (Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington) that account for 63% of Christmas Trees farmed in the United States, found that the trees grown in just those states required 270,000 pounds of pesticides annually.
The vast majority are from these eight chemicals: chlorothalonil, atrazine, simazine, glyphosate, hexazinone, carbaryl, chlorpyrifos and dimethoate.
Here’s the nitty gritty breakdown of these eight chemicals; quoted directly from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); not for the faint of heart:
ONE – “Chlorothalonil acts primarily as a fungicide and mildewicide, but also has some activity as a bactericide, microbiocide, algaecide, insecticide, and acaricide. It is a broad spectrum, non-systemic pesticide. Its exact mechanism of action is not known. Chlorothalonil is in acute Toxicity Category IV (the least toxic of four categories) for the oral route of exposure, and in Toxicity Category II for the inhalation route.
For acute dermal effects and acute skin irritation, chlorothalonil is in Toxicity Category IV. Chlorothalonil produces severe eye irritation in rabbits (Toxicity Category I). The Agency has classified chlorothalonil as a likely human carcinogen (formerly Group B2).”
TWO – “Atrazine is a widely used herbicide for control of broadleaf and grassy weeds in corn, sorghum, rangeland, sugarcane, macadamia orchards, pineapple, turf grass sod, asparagus, forestry, grasslands, grass crops, and roses. Atrazine may be released to the environment through effluents from manufacturing facilities and through its use as a herbicide. EPA has found atrazine to potentially cause a variety of acute health effects from acute exposures at levels above the MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level).
These effects include: congestion of heart, lungs and kidneys; hypotension; antidiuresis; muscle spasms; weight loss; adrenal degeneration. Atrazine has the potential to cause weight loss, cardiovascular damage, retinal and some muscle degeneration, and mammary tumors from a lifetime exposure at levels above the MCL. There is some evidence that atrazine may have the potential to cause cancer from a lifetime exposure at levels above the MCL.”
THREE – “Simazine is a systemic herbicide that is usually applied to soil, absorbed through leaves and roots, and acts by inhibiting photosynthesis within the targeted plant. It is widely used as a selective herbicide to control most annual grasses and broadleaf weeds before they emerge or after removal of weed growth. EPA evaluated simazine along with two other structurally-related chlorinated triazines, atrazine and propazine, and their three chlorinated degradates, as sharing a neuroendocrine mechanism of toxicity.
After subchronic and chronic exposure to these compounds, a variety of species were shown to exhibit neuroendocrine effects resulting in both reproductive and developmental consequences that are considered relevant to humans. These compounds disrupt the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis, part of the central nervous system, and cause cascading changes to hormone levels and developmental delays.”
FOUR – “Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide registered for use on many food and non-food field crops as well as non-crop areas where total vegetation control is desired. When applied at lower rates, glyphosate also is a plant growth regulator. Glyphosate is among the most widely used pesticides by volume. Glyphosate is of relatively low oral and dermal acute toxicity. It has been placed in Toxicity Category III for these effects (Toxicity Category I indicates the highest degree of acute toxicity, and Category IV the lowest).
The acute inhalation toxicity study was waived because glyphosate is nonvolatile and because adequate inhalation studies with end-use products exist showing low toxicity. A subchronic feeding study using rats showed blood and pancreatic effects. A similar study with mice showed reduced body weight gains in both sexes at the highest dose levels. A dermal study with rabbits showed slight reddening and swelling of the skin, decreased food consumption in males and decreased enzyme production, at the highest dose levels.
In developmental toxicity studies using pregnant rats and rabbits, glyphosate caused treatment-related effects in the high dose groups including diarrhea, decreased body weight gain, nasal discharge and death. One reproductive toxicity study using rats showed kidney effects in the high dose male pups; another study showed digestive effects and decreased body weight gain.”
FIVE – “Hexazinone is a herbicide used to control a broad spectrum of weeds including undesirable woody plants in alfalfa, rangeland and pasture, woodland, pineapples, sugarcane and blueberries. It is also used on ornamental plants, forest trees and other non-crop areas. Hexazinone is classified as a Group D carcinogen—a chemical that is not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity.
Animal data presented to EPA is equivocal—it is not entirely negative, but not convincingly positive. The Agency has concluded that the evidence cannot be interpreted as showing either the presence or absence of a carcinogenic effect. In acute toxicity studies using laboratory animals, hexazinone has been shown to be a severe eye irritant and has been placed in Toxicity Category I (the highest of four levels) for primary eye irritation. It is slightly toxic through the acute oral route (Toxicity Category III) and very mildly toxic through the acute dermal and acute inhalation routes (Toxicity Category IV).
Hexazinone is only mildly toxic for skin irritation potential (Toxicity Category IV) and is not a skin sensitizer. Some treatment-related effects were found in developmental toxicity studies using rats and rabbits, at the high dose levels. Similarly, some effects were noted in a reproductive toxicity study at the mid- and high dose levels. Hexazinone was positive in one mutagenicity study but negative in the remaining studies.”
SIX – “Carbaryl is one of the most widely used broad-spectrum insecticides in agriculture, professional turf management and ornamental production, and residential pet, lawn, and garden markets. A member of the n-methylcarbamate class of pesticides, carbaryl can cause cholinesterase inhibition in humans; that is, it can overstimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, confusion, and at high exposures, respiratory paralysis, and death.
Carbaryl is a reversible inhibitor of acetylcholinesterase. Carbaryl is classified as a likely human carcinogen based on vascular tumors in mice. However, non-cancer risks are seen as the primary risk driver for almost all use scenarios.”
SEVEN – “Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide, acaricide and miticide used to control foliage and soil-borne insect pests on a variety of food and feed crops. Chlorpyrifos can cause cholinesterase inhibition in humans; that is, it can overstimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, confusion, and at very high exposures (e.g., accidents or major spills), respiratory paralysis and death.”
EIGHT – “Dimethoate is an organophosphorus insecticide with a contact and systemic action. Dimethoxon, an oxygen analogue metabolite of dimethoate, appears to play a dominant role in its toxicity for insects and mammals. Dimethoxon itself is also used as an insecticide, known as omethoate.”
“Human health effects from dimethoate or omethoate at low environmental doses or at biomonitored levels from low environmental exposures are unknown. High doses of dimethoate, omethoate, and other organophosphate pesticides inhibit acetylcholinesterase enzymes in the nervous system, resulting in excess acetylcholine at nerve terminals. Acute cholinergic symptoms include nausea, vomiting, weakness, paralysis, and seizures.
Carcinogenicity studies in animals have been inconsistent, with tumors of spleen, skin, and lymph systems in male but not female rats, and lung tumors and lymphoma in male mice and liver tumors in female mice. Dimethoate is considered mutagenic, but it is not a teratogen. Reproductive toxicity was seen at doses that also caused overt maternal toxicity (IPCS, 2003; U.S. EPA, 1995). The U.S. EPA classified dimethoate as a possible human carcinogen (U.S. EPA, 1995).”
With small children and pets around your trees, how could you feel safe knowing these toxic chemicals may end up in their mouths or on their skin, and potentially cause long-term injury?
If that’s not enough to persuade you to opt out of bringing toxic trees into your home, there’s a condition known as “Christmas Tree Syndrome.” Often mistakenly attributed to “normal” seasonal illnesses, people report coughing, sneezing, asthma, and other upper respiratory conditions. What’s the cause?—mold.
Dr. Lawrence Kurlandsky, a pediatric allergist and pulmonologist in New York, reported:
“In my many years of private practice, I might see up to 10 kids on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, who needed to go to the emergency room because they were having an asthma attack.”
Dr. Kurlandsky took samples of live Christmas Trees and brought them to colleagues to be tested. The results published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology revealed 53 types of mold on 26 samples that were potential allergens.
Is it possible some cases of “Christmas Tree Syndrome” could also be linked, even partially, to the deluge of toxic chemicals on most trees? The above EPA findings undoubtedly substantiate that argument.
Knowledge Is Golden; Proactivity Changes Outcomes
There are a growing number of people aware of the dangers of conventionally-farmed trees, who are seeking resource lists of organic farms around the country, like this one provided by Green Promise. If you’d like a list organized by states, Natural Baby Mama has you covered, and makes your search easy.
Let’s say you’re ready to begin this journey of bringing a healthier tree into your home. You find telephone numbers of tree lots near you, and begin making calls. Now if this is new information for you, or you’ve heard about it in the past, and are now taking action, you may wonder what questions to ask, or how to approach the topic.
Extract as much information you need to feel confident about your purchase. Farms that give you the runaround, don’t know the answers to your questions, or sound bothered by your inquiry, do not support your mission to reduce toxicity in your home, and are best passed by.
Here’s a list of questions and conversations you can have, and ways to break the ice:
- “Hi there; your trees are beautiful. I drive by your lot/farm every year and love your assortment. It must be rewarding seeing kids pick out their trees. How long have you been doing this?”
- “I’m looking for a new Christmas Tree lot (or farm) for my yearly tree, and I have some questions I’d like to ask you.”
- “I know it’s common for most lots/farms to spray their trees to protect against weeds, bugs, and other things… Can you tell me if your trees are sprayed?”
- “You don’t know if they’re sprayed? Do you mind asking someone who would know?”
- “What kind of sprays am I talking about? I don’t know the names, but they’re typically combinations of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.”
- “The trees are “natural,” you say? That’s great. Can you please tell me what type of sprays you use?”
- “I seem to be allergic (true or not) to some chemical sprays (pulling the “allergy card” can feel less confrontative), so I’m looking for unsprayed trees.”
- “All your trees are sprayed? Thanks for your honesty; I’ll continue my search.”
- “Some of your trees are sprayed, and others aren’t? That’s interesting. Is that because customers are requesting unsprayed trees? Are the sprayed trees separated from the unsprayed trees? I’m pretty sure airborne chemicals travel.”
- “Your trees are totally unsprayed? That’s fantastic. Just curious…What do you use to keep away weeds, bugs, and fungus? I’ll be over soon to pick out (or cut) my Christmas Tree. Thank you for not spraying!”
If the above conversation feels like a “Portlandia” moment… it just may be! And well worth your inquiry.
Continue reading to the end of the article to download A Voice For Choice Advocacy’s Non-Toxic Christmas Tree Buying Guide.
Carbon Footprint: Young or Old Trees? It turns out a mix is best!
“A forest is only an effective carbon sink if it offers a subtle balance of biodiversity in which young and old trees can coexist in a real mix of species. The forest is a living environment whose integrity, stability and prosperity are highly dependent on species diversity. In this complex environment, such a balance is provided by animals, plants, and bacteria. From these intrinsic virtues comes a clear conviction: the more complex the forest is, the more resistant it is to bad weather, pests, and parasites. And in the long term, this is how it will be more productive.”
Artificial Alternatives Don’t Make the Grade
If finding an organic tree seems too difficult or expensive, and you want to opt for an artificial tree instead, consider the following.
According to RTK Environmental Group:
“A 2002 study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Asheville that found three out of four artificial trees tested contained lead – that translates to 50 million American households with a PVC-based artificial tree.”
Since most trees are shipped from China, the carbon footprint in addition to the inability to recycle the trees, has a huge negative impact on the environment as well.
Along with the lead, flame retardants are often sprayed on the trees and will “off-gas,” ending up in the dust of your home. Breathing in these chemicals can result in the following health issues:
“Endocrine disruption, thyroid dysfunction, cancer, lower IQ, hyperactivity, altered sexual development, neurodevelopment impairment, fertility issues, and other adverse pregnancy outcomes.”
If you must… one of the safer artificial Christmas Trees on the market is from Ikea. The company website states:
“This artificial tree is made of plastic, of which at least 30% comes from renewable sources. By using a renewable material like sugar cane in this product, we avoid using fossil or finite materials. No BPA (Bisphenol A) added.”
They also avoid using flame retardants on their products.
Start a New Tradition
Reuse. An eco-friendly alternative, non-conifer variety preferred, is to source a live, potted tree to use year after year. Though initially it may be sprayed, throughout the years in your care, without repeated application of chemicals, it will be safer than a conventionally-treated tree.
Cultivating a new ritual can be fun, and in addition to taking preventative health care measures at Christmas time simply by carefully choosing your tree, your entire family can benefit by learning how to tend to your tree, and take delight in watching it grow year-round. Research ahead of time to learn best practices for ensuring the longevity of your tree.
Good for the environment:
“Research has shown that Christmas tree plantations can provide a boost to biodiversity – especially in areas where it has been declining as agriculture becomes more intensified. This is because the plantations tend to have open habitat structures rich in bare ground, which can allow higher accessibility to food resources, while their trees can provide farmland birds with decent nesting conditions. They also tend to be less intensively managed than much industrialized agriculture, which also helps with food availability, while their fences can keep out the disruption from humans and dogs.”
No matter what type of Christmas Tree you choose this year, having the knowledge to make an informed decision is paramount to your family’s health and wellness. Your actions today may influence the choices your children make in the future.
If there’s enough demand, in time there will be adequate supply. These seemingly small acts will drive the market, in general, toward offering safer, environmentally-friendly trees, and will have your family singing, “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, how lovely are thy branches!” for generations to come.
AVFCA prepared this special, downloadable reference guide to support you this holiday season: “A Voice For Choice Advocacy’s Non-Toxic Christmas Tree Buying Guide.”
If you’d like to contact A Voice For Choice Advocacy, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.