Around this time of year, parents begin to ask about the dangers of lead in holiday lights and artificial Christmas trees.
It’s an important topic, to be sure. But I sometimes wonder if the breadth of it is realized.
To delve into the topic of PVC and also lead, I’d like to begin with an excerpt from Apple’s website.
Why has Apple removed PVC from their cords and cables?
From both an environmental and health standpoint, Polyvinyl Chloride (aka Vinyl) is generally cited as the most toxic of all plastics.
PVC can be hard or soft. The flexible version is the more dangerous of the two.
It contains stabilizers (lead is often used but the trend is toward others) and chemical plasticizers (phthalates) to make it pliable. It also contains toxic glues and emits a tremendous amount of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) – more than any other plastic.
What’s more, vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen (R) and should be avoided whenever possible. Thank you, Apple for being one of several brands to help protect us!
When PVC products are in our homes, they can add phthalates, lead, VOC’s and other toxins into the air we breathe.
Ingestion is also a problem because as we touch these items, micro particles from chemicals and lead can transfer to our hands. With children or anyone who doesn’t wash hands before eating, the lead content in PVC can pose serious threats to our health.
Refresh my memory on the dangers of lead exposure
Among lead’s far reaching negative health effects are: neurological and nerve damage, memory loss, increased risk of heart attack, stroke, infertility, birth defects, cancer, weak bones, muscle and joint pain, high blood pressure and kidney problems.
Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead because their bodies absorb more than adults and they can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects. It’s important to remember that lead also accumulates over time causing greater damage.
Lead can destroy myelin insulation and prevent nerves from transmitting messages properly causing: reduced IQ, learning disabilities, decreased growth, hyperactive and antisocial behavior, and impaired hearing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no safe level of lead exposure for anyone.
Clearly, it’s critical that we avoid PVC products containing lead as a stabilizer and fortunately the trend has been to move away from lead stabilizers in the past decade. But because of lack of regulation, determining which products contain lead can be difficult.
Since PVC has it’s own host of problems (even without lead), some people choose to avoid buying and/or washing hands after touching items containing PVC.
How can I tell what contains PVC and potentially lead?
PVC’s recycling number is 3, but you won’t find most products marked with it. Nearly every flexible plastic item in our daily life has the potential to contain PVC and lead.
For cell phones, chargers and headphones, pressure from organizations such as Greenpeace is what prompted the headline: Apple First to Eliminate Toxic PVC
As of this year, only Apple is PVC free across their entire line. According to Guide to Greener Electronics 2017 Samsung, LG, Lenovo (Motorola), Nokia, and Sony have all stalled with plans to phase out PVC from their products. Several of them have PVC free devices but not cords and cables.
Products often containing PVC and potentially lead:
- Certain brands of phone charging cables and headphones, especially off-brands. Fabric wrapped cords can be a safer option.
- Vinyl mobile phone cases (silicone or Apple brand are ok)
- Extension and Power cords (vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, laptop cord etc..) [more info]
- School Supplies: pencil cases, soft bags, binders, clear covers. The lead toy ban does not cover children’s school supplies [more info]
- Raincoats, boots, off-brand plastic shoes (Crocs are PVC-free)
- Garden Hoses [safest brands]
- Inflatable pool toys, life vests, small pools, floaties [safe options]
- Children’s soft plastic toys – Especially older toys. Also, US toy law doesn’t cover everything, you must always check. Toxic PVC In Plastic Toys & How To Avoid Them
- Air mattresses, waterproof mattress pads
- Shower Curtains [safe brands]
- Vinyl Table cloths [more]
- Vinyl measuring tape [lead content]
- Select food packaging (plastic wrap and containers)
- Bubble wrap
- Mini Blinds [pre 1996]
- Vinyl flooring [more info / testing]
- Car interiors [many companies phasing out]
- Shiny or clear plastic bags
- Faux Leather handbags
- Vinyl Gloves (latex-free gloves are PVC)
- Holiday Light strands: What you need to know about lead in holiday lights
- Artificial Christmas Trees: How real are the lead exposure risks? (Pubmed)
Ok Scrooge, so it’s almost the holidays and both my lights and tree could have lead?
Sadly, yes they often do, and a living tree isn’t an option for everyone because of allergens, mold and pesticides. To find a lower lead tree (none are completely lead & PVC free), read How to Find a Non-Toxic Artificial Christmas Tree.
If you don’t want to purchase a new tree or Lead free lights, we’ve compiled these tips:
And what about all the other things?
From the list above it seems as if PVC and potentially lead are truly in ALL THE THINGS! So, as you go through your day, take note of any flexible plastic items and if you’re curious, do an internet search for the product in question + PVC or Lead.
There’s a wealth of information available. Often you’ll find information on safer options. Some helpful articles I found were linked above, but you can find many more.
Remember, no label does NOT mean the product does not contain PVC or lead. California requires a label (could be as vague as may cause cancer) but some manufacturers only put the label on packages for sale in CA.
And how do I know if my handbag is toxic?
“All day long you’re carrying your purse, opening it, closing it. Every time you touch it, a small amount of lead gets on your fingers. Imagine yourself eating a potato chip or putting on lip balm, that lead is going into you.” – Caroline Cox, CEH research director
The Center for Environmental Health recommends avoiding brightly colored purses made of plastic, vinyl or any faux leather and they found lead in designer brands was equal to bags found in bargain bins. [Levels of Lead in ladies handbags]
I’ve heard there’s lead in glazed dishes, is that true too?
Unfortunately, sometimes yes. This article has focused on PVC but a commonly discussed source of lead exposure involves the glazing used on many brands of dinnerware, including glazed crock pots. As these items wear, fine scratches allow more lead to leach.
Read Lead in your Dishes, an excellent article that also contains testing information.
Two lead & cadmium free companies are Homer Laughlin (fiestaware) and Emile Henry. Their glaze is made of “natural metal oxides.” Plain white Corelle has also tested lead free. We prefer to keep it simple and use clear glass.
To slow cook, for years I placed a glass bowl inside of a large crockpot. It wasn’t very convenient but I didn’t trust porous clay cookers, so when the stainless steel Instant Pot was released, I bought one promptly! I use it on the slow cooker setting only. [R]
What’s the takeaway message from all of this?
While some major brands like Apple, have removed PVC and lead from their products, making our lives a bit simpler, many of them have not.
There are so many concerning products we come in contact with every day, it would be easily possible to become obsessed trying to avoid them all. Thinking about a PVC vacuum cleaner cord dragging cross a carpet where your child plays could drive you to insanity.
I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that knowledge is power, but we control what we do with the knowledge and it should only be used to add value, not become all consuming.
We can use what we know to make the best possible choices while not going overboard.
Handwashing: Not just for Germs anymore
Given the magnitude of toxic chemicals all around us, hand washing before eating is the #1 most important thing we can do.
Remind yourself and your loved ones, we don’t just wash our hands to avoid getting sick….. we do it to stay smart! Ingested chemicals and especially lead can lower IQ, so wash it off!
In our home, the motto is ONE DAY AT A TIME. We know we can’t fix everything all at once, but simple awareness can foster healthy life choices that build up to a measurable difference long term.
Maintaining a balance of fun and safety by managing what we can – and letting go of some things beyond our control – is always the best recipe for happy, healthy kids and sane parents!