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The History of Unsafe Holiday Decorations

Bubble lights were once all the rage until it was found they contained a hazardous chemical. 

Bubble lights were once all the rage until it was found they contained a hazardous chemical. 

While the holidays still do damage to our pocketbooks and stomachs from overindulgence, it’s hard to imagine a time when Christmas was dangerous to our health. Our property restoration company has dug up some ghosts from Christmases past — namely holiday decorations that posed fire and health risks. If you still have some of your grandmother’s old tinsel or lights, stay safe before you trim the tree or deck the halls. Contact us for safe biohazard cleanup if you come into contact with anything made from asbestos or large amounts of lead, and be sure to use safe lighting to avoid fires.

Up in Flames

The history of lighting up a Christmas tree with candles is said to go back to 17th century Germany and was brought over to North America in the early 19th century. As the candles posed such a risk, people used to light their tree intermittently while keeping an eye out for any sparks. The close watch only worked some of the time, as many trees did go up in flames. Eventually, insurance companies put out a disclaimer and refused to pay for fire damage and clean up resulting from candle-lit Christmas trees. The practice soon fizzled out and was replaced with electric lighting.

Lights On

According to the Smithsonian, it wasn’t Thomas Edison, the inventor of the incandescent bulb, who was the first to hang electric lights on a Christmas tree, but his assistant Edward H. Johnson. The vice president of Edison's Electric Light Company, Johnson decorated a tree with 80 specially made red, white, and blue bulbs and displayed it in his parlour window.

While most electric lights today are safe with proper inspection and handling, they can still overheat if left on for long periods. Fire cleanup experts recommend that you place all Christmas lights, including LED, on a timer, or unplug them before you retire or are away from home.

Toxic Traditions

Some decorations to this day contain small traces of lead, flame retardants, tin compounds, and phthalates. However, they are not as hazardous as they were in our grandparents’ day. Some of the toxins found in older Christmas decorations have been known to cause severe health issues such as cancer and even death. They include:

  • Tinsel made from lead: Now made of plastic, earlier forms of tinsel were found to be both flammable and toxic. Tinsel has also been known to severely damage the gastrointestinal system when swallowed by a pet or child.
  • Bubble lights: From the 1950s to the '70s, bubble lights were commonly used on Christmas trees and to decorate the exterior of homes for the holidays. The problem is the lights were found to contain methylene chloride, which would spill from the fragile lights when they broke. Exposure to this toxic substance, which converts to carbon dioxide in the body, can cause nausea, headaches, drowsiness, seizures, heart attacks, and even death.
  • Fake snow: Fake snow, used on wreaths, trees, and ornaments, once contained fire-resistant asbestos. These tiny white fibres are extremely toxic and known to cause asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma. The manufacturing of asbestos-based fake snow ceased in the 1970s. However, some of these decorations may have been passed down. It's recommended that a certified asbestos cleanup company handle all items suspected of containing asbestos.
  • Aluminum trees: Back in the 1950s, fake aluminum Christmas trees that came in silver, pink, and even purple were all the rage. However, they became dangerous, as the trees were known to conduct electricity when electric lights were strung on them. Fire cleanup companies suggest that those who still have old aluminum trees light them by using a rotating colour wheel light to project the colour onto the tree.

'Tis the season to be jolly (and safe!): Follow our tips on How to Protect Your Home from the Elements in Winter.

Proserve DKI has provided property restoration services to Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo residents since 1976. Contact us for restoration and clean up from the damage caused by water, wind, sewer, fire, and smoke. We are also certified for biohazard cleanup and offer safe and effective mould restoration and asbestos removal and remediation.