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Is it Safe? Holiday Hazards

December 13, 2013

Q: Are there any holiday-related items that are potential sources of toxic substances or pose safety threats?

A: Most holiday activities are not a serious safety concern. But Christmas trees and the toys placed under them may present unique health hazards.

One concern is moldy trees. Mold can live on Christmas trees after they are cut and it can take off when put inside a warm home. Breathing difficulties and asthma reactions may ensue. This can be avoided by using plastic trees or fresh cut trees. Trees that have been stored in lots for several weeks are more likely to harbor mold.

Batteries, especially small ones, are also a health and safety issue. Christmas toys may contain button batteries that are easy to swallow by children or pets. Once swallowed, the battery tends to get lodged in the esophagus where it can burn a hole and damage internal organs; death can occur within a few hours. Loose batteries and battery-containing devices should be kept away from children.

There are also worrisome toys—items intended for children under 3 years old cannot have small parts or loose magnets that can be a hazard if ingested. However, not all toys comply with this law and you may be giving a toy to a child over 3 who has a baby sibling. Therefore, be extra careful if there are children under 3 in the home where the toy gift will end up. No small or chokeable parts, no loose magnets and beware of children’s costume jewelry which may not only be chokeable but can contain toxic metals such as lead or cadmium.

Lastly, falls and fires both increase during the holidays. Statistics show a spike in injuries from falls related to decorating the tree and the home exterior. Fire is also a danger as Christmas trees are flammable; be very careful with candles, wires and bulbs.

Dr. Gary Ginsberg is a public health toxicologist in Connecticut and a lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health. He has written a book geared toward the general public, “What’s Toxic, What's Not,” and also has a website,, to answer questions about chemicals found in consumer products and in our homes.

The Yale School of Public Health invites you to submit questions for Dr. Ginsberg as part of this recurring monthly series. Contact us through Facebook or by e-mailing Michael Greenwood.

Submitted by Denise Meyer on December 13, 2013