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Don’t ignore this health and safety warning on your Christmas lights

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To prepare for the “most wonderful time of the year”, my family picked up our new Christmas tree with built-in lights.

What we didn’t expect when we unboxed it was that giant warning: ‘Cancer and Reproductive Disorders’.

We visited the link printed on the packaging and learned this the warning was about Christmas lights – which the site says can lead to an increased risk of cancer and reproductive harm.

It seems that some of the Christmas lights that we all buy at our local big box store or retire every year are coated in harmful chemicals like lead.

If you look closely at the packaging of products like furniture, vases, and even some foods, you’ll likely see a Proposition 65 warning. That’s thanks to the State of California, whose law “requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.”

My family returned our tree and replaced it with one that doesn’t have built-in lights. We look forward to decorating for the holidays and feeling safe while we do it.

Here’s how you can make sure you’re protected from any health risks when shopping for holiday decorations this year.

3 tips for decorating safely with Christmas lights

Compared to other exposures at this time of year, Christmas lights are a slight concern, according to Dr. Fred Henretig, senior toxicologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

During the holidays, poison control centers are much more concerned about young children taking medication belonging to house guests, Henretig notes.

Still, there are some things you can do if you’re concerned about exposure to harmful chemicals from Christmas lights.

The Proposition 65 warning suggests:

  • Wash your hands and your children’s hands after installing or removing Christmas lights, especially if you plan to prepare food or eat immediately afterwards
  • Ensure that young children do not play with the lights or put them in their mouths
  • Aiming to use Christmas lights labeled “lead-free”

“Some people [also] recommend wearing gloves when hanging Christmas lights,” adds Henretig.

Why Some Christmas Lights Pose Risks of Cancer and Reproductive Harm

When handling certain types of Christmas lights, people can come into contact with chemicals like lead and phthalates — which are prevalent in many plastics, Henretig says.

“It seems to be mostly in the wiring,” he adds.

And cancer risk is likely associated with phthalates, according to studies that examine chemical exposure and the development of certain childhood cancers, he says. However, there is not much data in humans.

Still, phthalates have been linked to effects on hormonal balance and “can negatively impact a child’s cognitive development,” says Henretig.

As for lead exposure, the biggest concern is for pregnant women and children under the age of five or six, he says.

“I don’t think it’s a serious concern where people have to immediately turn off all the lights in their house,” he says. “I think you should keep Christmas lights out of reach of young children.”

Simply touching the lights isn’t the problem, but touching your mouth after handling them before washing your hands can transfer chemicals from the wiring into your body, according to the Proposition 65 warning.

And for pregnant women, “these chemicals can pass from mother to baby,” the warning reads.

Low-level lead exposure can have adverse effects on children’s cognitive abilities, Henretig says, including developmental delays.

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