One of the joys of Christmas is watching a child’s face light up when the Christmas tree lights are turned on. They may enjoy playing with them as the strings of lights are tested before getting to the tree. It might be a safer idea, however, to enforce a hands-off policy for the littlest kids and strings of holiday lights. The electrical cord holding all those lights together is very likely made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) wire that’s coated in lead.

The lead serves as a stabilizer and flame retardant so it’s there for safety. It’s not so safe, though, when a child handles the cords and then puts their hands or fingers in their mouths. Doing so introduces traces of lead into the child’s body and lead is a neurotoxin that can interfere with the still-developing brains of infants and small children.

It’s a common misperception that lead has been effectively removed from the environment but it’s actually only banned in certain products such as paint and gasoline. For products made and marketed specifically for children, lead is allowed but in very small quantity.

California is the only state with a legal limit to the amount of lead that can coat electrical cords but Christmas lights are not considered electrical cords. Not in California, not anywhere in the United States. There are no limits to the amount of lead that can be on these beloved holiday products.

Researchers at Cornell University conducted tests in 2006 on a variety of styles of Christmas lights. They used gauze wipes to wipe down the cords, then sent the wipes and samples of the lights and cords to several independent test labs around the country. Each test lab was affiliated with the National Lead Laboratory Accreditation Program. These labs followed the quality control regulations established by the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

All the samples contained lead although in varying degrees. The older lights usually contained the highest lead concentrations.

The researchers urge consumers to contact Christmas light manufacturers to stop using lead in the lights’ cords since the companies won’t do it voluntarily. There are safer substitutes that could be used.

IKEA, for example, carries Christmas lights made with less lead than those made in the US. IKEA was founded in Sweden, is now headquartered in the Netherlands, and caters to a huge European market. The European Union has stricter limits on the use of lead than the US does but IKEA sells the same products in the US as it sells in the EU.

The good news is that lead doesn’t enter the body through the skin, so mom, dad, and older siblings doing the holiday decorating need to be sure to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water before handling babies and small children.

Source: Laquatra, Joseph, et al. “Lead in Christmas Lights (pdf).” Journal of Environmental Health. National Environmental Health Association. Dec 2008. Web. Dec 20, 2013.