Image: Christmas tree
AP file
Artificial trees are made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, in which lead is used as a stabilizer and softener. Research has shown that lead dust tends to leach out from fake trees over time, so if yours is more than a dozen years old, be careful.
updated 12/9/2007 4:25:58 PM ET 2007-12-09T21:25:58

For many families, artificial Christmas trees are an easy and economical alternative to buying a tree from a lot. But your fake tree — and string lights — may contain lead.

As you deck your halls this season, should you be concerned about harmful exposure?

Don't throw away your holiday trappings just yet, most experts say. But if Beanie Babies were the season's hottest gift when you bought your faux tree, take some precautions.

Artificial trees are made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, in which lead is used as a stabilizer and softener. Research has shown that lead dust tends to leach out from fake trees over time, so if yours is more than a dozen years old, be careful.

"If you're going to use an older tree, make sure that you wash your hands" after handling it, said Don Mays, senior director of product safety for Consumer Reports.

Newer trees generally contain lower levels of lead, but if you're concerned, have it tested by a lab. With price tags on some fake trees totaling hundreds of dollars, a test that typically costs less than $100 is a small price to pay, May said.

Lead also can be present in the strings of Christmas tree lights and in extension cords, so it's best to lather up after handling those items as well, he said.

Many holiday decorations are certified by a reputable independent party, so check for a label to ensure you're using the safest products available, said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Underwriters Laboratories Inc. and London-based Intertek Group PLC are two credible product-certification organizations, he said.

"Seeing that mark can help provide and added layer of protection," Wolfson said.

Another label you might see popping up on a number of holiday decorations this year warns consumers about potentially hazardous ingredients under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. Known as Proposition 65, the law requires warnings about cancer-causing chemicals or reproductive toxins on products sold in California, but the label increasingly appears on goods in other states.

"That label does not translate into an immediate health effect," Wolfson said, adding that lead house paint poses a greater risk than most consumer products.

To be on the safe side, Mays suggested avoiding products labeled as containing lead.

Following a recent slew of recalled Chinese toys and children's jewelry tainted with lead, artificial trees have come under the spotlight. China is the leading source of Christmas tree ornaments and artificial trees imported to the U.S., accounting for $142.6 million in sales, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Christmas trees and string lights don't pose the same hazard as the recalled toys and jewelry, however, Wolfson said. Children's potential exposure to lead is limited because the products can't be swallowed; parents should be more concerned about the shock danger if their kids are mouthing electrical wires, he said.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has never recalled an artificial tree or string lights due to lead contamination, Wolfson said. So, feel free to deck the halls this season with holiday cheer, and a little common sense.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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