Sunday, November 26, 2006

Lead poisoning from Christmas Lights: California, China, and the GOP

A small inquiry leads, as usual, to a bigger story. Our outdoor christmas tree lights (Bethlehem Lighting commercial grade tangle-free lights) carry a warning label: "Handling the coated electrical wires of this product exposes you to lead, a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm". Incidentally, to also cause brain damage in children -- with no known safe exposure level. (Prop 65, which mandates the law, only addresses birth defects, so if lead only caused severe brain damage in children, but not birth defects or cancer, no warning would appear. A political compromise, no doubt.)

Google helped track this down. This was a california story in 2003, but we missed it. The best summary is:
CHEC Articles: Holiday Lights and Christmas Trees May Contain Lead

If you've been shopping for holiday lights this season, you may have noticed a warning label on some of them stating that they may contain lead.

... Wire coating and cords are usually made of PVC plastic that may contain lead. Lead is used in PVC for several reasons. For wires and cords, lead makes the plastic more flexible and reduces the risk of fire. Lead is also used in many PVC products to stabilize the color. Lead in PVC products can disintegrate into lead-laced dust.

The labels began appearing on holiday lights, as well as on electronic equipment and cords on other consumer products such as hairdryers, after a number of lawsuits were filed by an environmental advocacy organization in California.

The amount of lead in the lights and other consumer products with warning labels may vary considerably. It is not clear if the amount of lead that is released poses a risk to human health. Some tests show that lead could come off in the hands. Note that nearly all appliance cords are covered with PVC that contains lead.

We recommend the following:

* Do not allow children to handle holiday lights!
* Adults should wash hands thoroughly after handling the lights.
* [jf: I don't think there are ANY lights made anywhere but China] Avoid lights made in China and other foreign countries, where there are no restrictions against the use of lead in consumer products. Lights made in the U.S. are likely to contain smaller amounts of lead, especially in the coating....
* Do not assume that holiday lights that do not bear the warning label are lead-free. It is possible that the lights are not sold in California. California is the only state that requires the warning label.
* Older lights that have not been labeled may also contain lead.
How much lead?
At the University of North Carolina at Asheville, researchers had a group of students put up lights then tested the lead levels on their hands. They found the lead levels were at least 10 times greater than what is considered safe.
That's a lot of lead. So much for assuming the GOP-eviscerated EPA is able to protect us.

So, to summarize, many electrical cords contain lead within the PVC covering. Chrismas lights from China (all of them) can contain quite a bit more lead since there's no effective regulation of lead in China; now that all lights come from China there's no other option for US consumers.

The GOP, including our rotten Senator Norm Coleman, has been trying to limit the ability of California to create local environmental rules that are stronger than federal mandates. The GOP is not going to support regulation of lead contamination in electrical cords; they're more likely to block this kind of warning label from appearing outside California.

Thank you California environmental pressure groups and thank you rabid attornies. In the meantime don't let children hand christmas lights, wash hands, and don't vote GOP.


abe said...

Thanks for the info! Most of the time I'm glad to live in CA (I'm from WI/MN originally)... all the health warnings sometime make me paranoid though (I was going to buy a fan yesterday and I saw the warning so I decided to check up on it). Tourists to CA must find it interesting b/c all the souveniers mugs and shot glasses have lead paint warnings. I'm glad to have the info so I can make informed decisions. Maybe people in other states vote for the GOP b/c their brains are too loaded with lead to add 2+2 :)

Anonymous said...

Hi, I read your article, I was looking for someone like that coz I have a webcam which in its box has a label with the message about the lead and the cancer on the cord. I feel a bit scared about using the webcam now, when I read the word CANCER many things come to my mind: diseases, hospitals, suffering, ill babies and finally DEATH! I don't know if I keep using my webcam or not, better I'll go to get another one which in the box doesn't have that message and which cord doesn't look like the cord of my actual webcam.

Anonymous said...

This is for Anonymous from 9/20/07 who says they're going buy a camcorder that doesn't carry a lead warning label so they don't have to deal with the lead... well, good luck, they all do. Have lead, that is. All wire insulation has some level of lead to keep them flexible and it's also a wire retardant, however, California is the ONLY state that requires you to have a label saying so -- so if you find a camcorder without a label, it doesn't mean it doesn't have lead (it DOES, or it has insulation that's inflexible and flammable), it simply means they didn't sell them in California -- and some big name brands will even have product with "regional labeling" which means the identical product sold in NY without the tag, sold in CA with it.
Either way, if you're in CA, it'll be tough finding one without a tag, but if you're on the East Coast, it'll be much easier... but you'll still have lead in your cable insulation.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad the warnings are there. All my life I've never thought twice about eating right after handling electrical cords. Now I know and can act accordingly! (Knowledge is power as they say.)

Wouldn't it be great if the label also allowed us to assess the extent of the toxicity? Like a listing of just how much of each toxic chemical is present, perhaps. Or maybe just a "health risk rating" on a scale of one to ten. Then those who care would be able to preferentially support those companies whose products are somewhat less toxic.

Anonymous said...

Listen. I'm a successful adult raised on Christmas time traditions and have handled lights all my life. I'm not sick, I'm not dying, I don't have cancer. My mother was pregnant during christmas with my brother. My brother is fine. Here's the point, try telling a 4 year old he can't touch his christmas tree, and try, after every time he does touch it, wash his hands. Have we forgotten that life is not predictable and handling christmas lights are not going to change your destiny. Wake up people. Live your lives with the people in it, and not by warning lables. Merry Christmas everyone.

JGF said...

That's one of my more unusual comments, but though provoking in it's own way.