Lead in Most Tree Lights Hazard for Kids, Group Says

Fifty-four percent of holiday lights tested in a U.S. study had more lead than regulators permit in children’s products, with some strands containing more than 30 times those levels.

Consumers should wash their hands after handling holiday lights, according to HealthyStuff.org, a product-information website that posted the data today. The Ecology Center, the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based group which runs HealthyStuff.org, tested 68 light sets in the study.

“The last thing families want to be worrying about during the holidays is whether they are exposing their children to toxic chemicals by decorating their tree,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center.

The U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission enforces a standard of 300 parts per million for lead in children’s products. That’s the level at which California requires warning labels for electrical cords. The CPSC’s limit is scheduled to decrease to 100 parts per million next year.

Twenty-eight percent of lights tested would be illegal under European Union limits of 1,000 parts per million for lead in electronics, said Gearhart.

Lead is a common component in vinyl, the material used to coat light wirings and bulb sockets, Gearhart said. Some retailers like IKEA, the Swedish furniture chain, sell products that comply with European standards, he said.

‘Not Children’s Products’

The biggest hazard in holiday lights is electrical shocks and fire from undersized wiring or cracks in the lights, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said in an e-mail. Consumers should make sure lights carry an independent testing lab’s label and haven’t been recalled.

“Holiday lights are not children’s products and CPSC advises parents to not allow children to handle or play with these lights,” Wolfson said.

Thirty-seven of the 68 products tested had more than 300 parts per million of lead in vinyl-covered cables or light-bulb sockets, HealthyStuff.org said. Light strands from General Electric Co. and Home Depot Inc. tested positive for lead in excess of the California standard, the group said.

Sets with light bases containing more than 450 parts per million included two sold at Home Depot under the Home Accents Holiday and Martha Stewart Living labels, the group said.

Seven holiday light strands tested at over 10,000 parts per million, or more than 30 times the U.S. children’s product level, HealthyStuff.org said.

Heat Resistant

Minute amounts of lead stabilize cord casings and ensure they’re heat resistant, GE Lighting spokesman David Schuellerman said in an e-mail. Tests by a GE licensee, Santa’s Best Craft Ltd., show all the company’s 2010 holiday lights are “far below” allowable government levels for lead, he said.

“We do not believe that these products present significant risk to consumers,” Schuellerman said.

“Quality and customer satisfaction are very important to the Home Depot,” said Jean Niemi, a company spokeswoman. “The Home Depot holiday light strings were tested and met the standards set by federal, state and local regulations.”

The industry negotiated with California officials to determine which electrical cords would carry warning labels, Clark Silcox, counsel at the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, said in a telephone interview. Cords that aren’t handled frequently, like plugs for televisions or phones, don’t require them, he said.

Siemens, Philips

“It was an unresolvable conflict whether anyone was truly exposed to lead,” Silcox said. The Arlington, Virginia-based group represents wire and cable makers as well as manufacturers such as GE, Siemens AG and Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV.

Three years after Congress established stricter lead-paint and lead-content limits in children’s products, companies are taking steps against toxic chemicals in other items.

In June, McDonald’s Corp. offered $3 refunds to customers who bought drinking glasses after cadmium was found in painted illustrations from the movie “Shrek Forever After.” In September, Wegmans Food Markets Inc., owner of a chain of East Coast supermarkets, replaced reusable shopping bags after a consumer group found high levels of lead.

The CPSC has the authority to order recalls and ask for manufacturing changes if it determines there’s a risk of lead poisoning from sources other than lead paint. It has done so with vinyl miniblinds, crayons, figurines used as game pieces and children’s jewelry, according to its website.

In 1996, the agency asked the window-covering industry to stop making vinyl miniblinds because research suggested lead dust could accumulate as the material degraded.

California requires warning labels on Christmas lights, designating them products with chemicals that may be carcinogenic and may cause birth defects.