By Anastacia Mott Austin
The debate over real vs. fake Christmas trees has just had more fuel added to the yule log fire.
A recent report presented at the national American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology meeting showed that mold spores in the air skyrocket when a Christmas tree is in your living room.
Dr. John Santilli, an allergist in Connecticut and leader of the study, tested mold spores in the air of an apartment where a cut Christmas tree was placed. (It wasn’t Dr. Santilli’s apartment, it belonged to an intern, so the doctor had nothing to lose.)
He tested the air for mold spores over a period of two weeks. On day three, the air tested at about 800 mold spores per cubic meter of indoor air, which falls near the normal range of 500-700 spores.
At the two-week mark, however, the mold spores measured at 5,000 mold spores per cubic meter of air, and we have to assume Dr. Santilli took into account other possible sources for mold spores in an intern’s apartment, like dirty socks or old pizza boxes.
"As mold growth is common in the area surrounding outdoor foliage, we hypothesized that the presence of a live Christmas tree may be contributing to indoor mold," said Dr. Santilli at the conference.
As much as 15% of the population suffers from an allergy to mold, and even if one isn’t allergic to it, breathing in mold spores is just not good for one’s health.
So is a fake tree the better alternative for those who find themselves sniffling and wheezing with a cut tree?
Mike Schade, a representative for the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, says that artificial Christmas trees made in China with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) may contain lead.
The labeling of the trees is insufficient, says Schade, and may not warn of lead levels present in the trees. "These Christmas trees are highly toxic to manufacture and dispose of. The studies that have been done have found while they’re unlikely to release a level of lead that leads to childhood lead poisoning, there really is not safe exposure to lead. Lead has no place in our homes," said Schade to reporters.
Some artificial tree packaging warns to wash your hands after handling the tree, and to not allow children to play with it.
Great, so you have to choose between mold allergens and toxic lead poisoning?
Not necessarily. One trend that has been gathering steam is to buy a living, potted Christmas tree. Many nurseries now offer 4-foot, 6-foot, and 7-foot live, potted trees. In many cases the trees cost about the same as a cut tree, and people like to feel good about making a green choice. Some companies are getting in on the trend and "renting" live Christmas trees – after paying a deposit, the customer gets the tree delivered before Christmas to his/her doorstep, and picked up afterward to be donated to a re-planting or other organization.
Aside from its obvious environmental benefits, a live tree can be a great alternative for someone who has allergies or might be sensitive to the chemicals (or lead) in an artificial tree. No mold, no PVC, no lead poisoning or other chemical additives to breathe. While the tree is in your living room, it acts as a giant houseplant, cleaning the air! It’s actually good for your health.
Many websites offer tips on how to care for a living tree. Here are some of the basics:
1. Do your research. Call local nurseries in your area and find out if they have potted trees. You may have to buy early, as a nursery’s supply of 6-foot evergreens is going to be more limited than Bob’s Christmas Tree Lot. Try to choose a tree that is native to your area (a likelihood already if you’re buying from a local nursery). Decide in advance what you’d like to do with the tree afterward.
2. Remember that your tree is a living thing, and act accordingly. The tree can only be indoors for a maximum of about seven days before it begins to react to the warmer indoor temperatures. With a little planning, this should not be a problem. The tree can be kept on a porch or outside in its pot before and after the holidays. Remember to water it daily – indoor air can be drying to a live tree. Carefully follow the instructions given by the nursery, or call them if you have questions.
3. If you plan to plant your tree in your yard, try to envision what it will look like as a fully grown tree – some evergreens grow to over 50 feet tall! Plan accordingly.
If you feel dismayed by the recent news, and concerned about the potential impact to your health with the seemingly limited choices of choosing a cut Christmas tree or an artificial tree, you might want to consider the option of a live, potted tree.