Friday, November 18, 2011

O Christmas Tree!

We found the perfect tree!
As I was merrily surfing the other day, I came across an entire new organic issue for me to worry about! Christmas trees! Cue the eye roll from my husband. See, I thought we’d settled this issue long ago when we chose a real Christmas tree rather than a fake one. We didn’t want that big plastic conifer outgassing PVC all through our house, so we developed our tradition of selecting a tree at a nearby farm and cutting it down ourselves. A fresh, live (for now) tree! Love the pine scent, don’t mind the needles too much. We always have fun picking the tree and gather plenty of pictures and memories. But now a shadow has been cast over this lovely family adventure.

Is this pungent pine beauty scenting our house not only with its own perfume, but also pesticides? Or for that matter, has anyone applied a toxic fire retardant spray to prevent it from igniting in my house? These questions had never occurred to me.

When I was a child, I have vague memories of returning from our Christmas tree harvest and waiting impatiently while my father (the chemical engineer) applied some kind of fire retardant spray to our tree. That was just what you did. When my husband and I bought our first tree (from a neighbor), we never even thought to douse our prize with chemicals even though we lived in a 150 year old farm house (that hadn’t been updated). Was I naive not to worry?

The National Christmas Tree Association has this to say about the danger of real trees igniting in your home:

A) Less than 0.0004% of Real Christmas Trees used each year are ignited in home fires and NEVER has a Real Christmas Tree caused or started a fire. Even though the chance of a Christmas Tree fire is very slim, you can ensure that your Real Christmas Tree stays fresh and safe by following the NCTA recommended care tips. Anyone who has ever tried to start a camp fire with green wood understands how flame resistant a properly watered tree is.

Don't believe us? Watch this clip shown on the NBC Tonight Show with Jay Leno in December, 2004

The clip is kind of fuzzy, but it’s funny. Every year, the press warns us about the danger of Christmas trees and fire, but I have to wonder how much of that hype isn’t generated by the Artificial Christmas Tree manufacturers. Seriously. I never realized that the real vs fake tree dilemma is such a battleground. I found two sites while looking in to this Christmas tree issue – The National Christmas Tree Association, which takes the side of live trees, and the American Christmas Tree Association, which promotes the use of artificial trees.

The American Christmas Tree Association website is a pretty scary place to visit if you’re planning on a live tree this year. There are all kinds of dire warnings about the hazard of a real tree inside your home. Still, I can’t help wondering why my dead, dry tree (their words, not mine) is any more a fire hazard than the papers my kids leave everywhere. When I light the fires in our woodstoves, I never having any trouble getting paper to light, but I’ve spent some pretty frustratingly cold mornings struggling to light the 2 year old dead wood placed in the stove. There is enough intrigue, deceit, and raw material here for a movie, or at least a Michael Moore documentary. But I’ll leave these issues, fun as they are, so I can get back to discussing organic Christmas trees.

Most Christmas tree farms use some kinds of pesticides, although the only way to know for sure what and how dangerous they are, is to ask the grower. You can also buy Christmas trees infused with other scents (orange, spice, etc.), although I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want that refreshing pine scent the tree produces naturally. There’s no data on how scents are ‘infused” or whether they are natural or artificial. You do have the option of certified organic Christmas trees (of course!), but I’m willing to bet they don’t come cheap. You can find a local organic tree farmer through Local Harvest.

I’m still committed to a live Christmas tree. I just can’t imagine a plastic one, convenience or not. And it’s not just the outgassing or the fact that plastic trees are not recyclable, it’s the smell. I love the smell of a pine tree in my living room. And I love trooping all over the tree farm arguing about the perfect tree. And I love coming home and decorating it together. This is one of the few things we do as a family anymore.

This year I might ask my tree grower a few questions. But he seems like a nice guy and the trees are literally in his front yard, plus the yard is definitely not weed free and the trees are cheap ($40 bucks any size), so I can’t imagine he’s heavily invested in expensive chemical pesticides.

Like so many other organic issues, it comes down to trust and your best speculation. You have to trust the person you’re buying from and you have to speculate just how much risk there is in bringing a live, possibly pesticide-coated, tree in to your house. We can’t know for sure that pesticides are a definitive danger to the health of your home’s inhabitants, but we can’t know for sure that they aren’t. I’m not sure we will ever sort out the effects of the chemical soup ingested by all of us over the years.

I suppose the only way to truly know that my Christmas tree doesn’t pose a danger to my family is to grow it myself. I’m sure my husband is groaning as he reads this, but next spring you know what will be gracing the back edge of our property.


  1. Hi Cara,

    I was at your presentation at the Paul Smith Library and really enjoyed it. I completely agree with you regarding real live christmas trees. Do you know of any farms in our area (I'm in Delta) that sells safe trees? I will drive pretty much anywhere in York Co. to buy one.

    Thanks, Tina

  2. If you look on, you'll find a listing. I believe there is one in Jarrettsville which might be closer to you.

  3. Please understand there is NO DIFFERENCE whatsoever between a tree labeled "organic" and a tree not labeled so.

    I recommend 2 resources if you'd like to do additional research. First, a book called "The Truth About Organic Foods" by Alex Avery. Many people would be surprised to learn that organic farms use pesticides, many of which are the same ones used on conventional farms.

    Also, this web site written by an entymologist at North Carolina State University explains very well exactly what chemical inputs, both natural and synthetic, are used at a typical Christmas Tree farm and what impact they have. .

    Now, if you want to buy an organic tree because you philosophically support that style of agricultural production, well that's fine. I'm happy as long as you buy a real, farm-grown tree and not a fake, plastic tree. But it's inaccurate and misleading to suggest that it's safer in a home. There has never been a scientific research article suggesting that harmful levels of chemical residue exists on Christmas trees, and in fact there have been studies looking for it. I feel completely confident in saying that you don't decrease your chance of getting sick by bringing a "certified organic" Christmas tree into your home as opposed to one not labeled so.