Nov 16 2007
07:00 am
By: onetahiti

Once again, as for many years, our home is dark for the holidays. No colorful lights adorn our abode to express our bounteous holiday spirit. Why? Are we modern-day Scrooges, trying to say "Humbug" to our neighbors? Or is there another reason?

Here is our problem: for many years we haven't been able to buy Christmas lights.

Each year we have tried to buy Christmas lights--we love lights--but each year our quest has been thwarted. Why? For a long time, literally all of the lights to be found, locally or online, have been leaded and poisonous.

Poison is not our idea of the holiday spirit.

Over the years I have repeatedly contacted the management at Wal-Mart, Lowe's, and other chains to tell them of the lead light situation and to ask that they stock non-lead lights, but have been told each year that all lights are now from China and indeed are coated in lead. :(

If it were not for California's progressive labeling laws we might never have known.

If you have purchased lights in the last 10 years or so, make sure to only handle them with gloves and be very careful not to let children touch the cords or coated parts of the bulbs. The parts that one would think would be plastic are now lead.

Or... maybe it will be different this year? Please, if someone finds Christmas lights that are made in the US or are clearly labeled as not having lead instead of the opposite, please let me know? Our house has been mostly dark at the holidays for a very long time and a dislike for lead is why.

-- OneTahiti

OneT: As Ricky would say to Lucy:

"Splain to me, please..."

Lead in lights? How and where. I have some several year old lights, and I guarantee you that having handled lead metal myself, the wires are plastic, not lead. That is to say - on the outside. The inside? Stranded coper wire. Where's the lead?


Good question, RB

The lights we have seen for years now have all been labeled with fine print warning of care in handling because of toxicity from lead, a labeling supposedly required by California law. Did you find some that were not so labeled? :)

-- OneTahiti

OneT - where is the labeling?

On the box? On the wire? What does tha CA labeling say? Sometimes CA is way ahead of the rest of the nation in such things, other times CA is, shall I say, out in the ozone with some of their laws, etc.

I've done some research (not finished) on transdermal lead absorption. There is no question that it can happen. I haven't seen good answers yet as to whether or not clinically significant amounts of lead are absorbed transdermally, or of what level of exposure/handling might be required for such to occur. What I'm questioning is kind of like some of the stuff in recent years that has been published about different things (e.g. peanut butter) causing cancer. If they had to give 3 times the rat's body weight over a short period of time to make a rat sick, it has little clinical significance in reality. That kind of thing...

I'll look at 'em when I get 'em out soon and see if I can find any labeling about lead.


On the boxes

Thanks, RB! :)

-- OneTahiti

I can't tell you how many

I can't tell you how many lights up put up last year and now im regretting touching the damn things if i have to do the same this year im buying gloves buy i think we should all be sending not walmart but whatever government agency handled the toys issue with china and get them to focus on these lights. More people should be reading about this if you want more visitors to your site check out the google magic formula it has some great information in it about getting better listings in google.

Working on my research...

Found one recent medical article abstracted in PubMed (the standard place for searching for medical information [as opposed to pop or pseudo-medicine] searches used by medical professionals):

Am J Ther. 2005 Jan-Feb;12(1):17-21.
Cutaneous resorption of lead after external use of lead-containing ointments in volunteers with healthy skin.
Gorter RW, Butorac M, Cobian EP.
International Institute for Oncological and Immunological Research, Hohenstaufenring 30-32, 50674 Cologne, Germany.

Lead-containing ointments are frequently used in anthroposophic medicine. In a prospective, open-label phase 1 study, 33 volunteers at the Ambulatory Clinic for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the Free University of Berlin, aged 18-65 years, were exposed to 100 g Plumbum metallicum 0.4% ointment (Weleda, Germany) over a 4-week period. The lead-containing ointment was regularly applied to the cubital side of the forearm. Regular measurements of lead concentrations in whole blood, urine, and scalp hair were determined. None of the 33 volunteers showed an increase in lead concentrations in the 3 investigated compartments after 4 and 8 weeks. Blood lead levels (average value) decreased significantly from baseline to the first week (P < 0.05). Average values in the following investigations (weeks 3, 4, and 8) were significantly lower than at baseline (P < 0.05). There was no increase in lead levels in the scalp hair after 8 weeks (P < 0.05). The results show that the commonly prescribed lead-containing ointment Plumbum metallicum 0.4% in humans with an intact skin does not present a toxic risk.

PMID: 15662288 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

I don't know the % or dose found in the lights OneT is concerned about, so can't say yet whether this article is relevant to those issues. May or may not be. Will try to find out more, but this seems like a pretty significant exposure of the skin to lead metal. Will keep y'all posted.


Another reference

I found this:
"Dermal (skin) absorption

The ability of the skin to absorb certain organic lead compounds, such as tetraethyl lead found in petrol has been recognized since the 1940s. Recent laboratory research suggests inorganic lead compounds (e.g. lead nitrate, lead acetate and lead oxide) can be absorbed through the skin but in very small quantities. As a blood lead test is the most common detection method, additional research is needed on lead testing methods. Skin absorption may also pose a threat to workers in the construction trades and paint industry that are less likely to wear protective clothing to prevent lead dust from adhering to their skin."

Located here: (link...)


Another from PubMed

Sci Total Environ. 1988 Oct 15;76(2-3):267-78.
The use of sweat to monitor lead absorption through the skin.
Lilley SG, Florence TM, Stauber JL.

CSIRO Division of Fuel Technology, NSW, Australia.

It is usually assumed that lead can be absorbed through the skin only if it is present as an organolead compound such as tetraethyllead or lead naphthanate. It has been found, however, that finely-powdered lead metal or lead nitrate solution placed on the skin results in rapid absorption of lead, and transport of the metal around the body. The absorbed lead appears in sweat and saliva, but not in blood or urine. The application of 6 mg of lead as 0.5 M lead nitrate to the left arm resulted in an increase in lead concentration in pilocarpine-induced iontophoresis sweat samples taken from the right arm, from an initial value of 15-25 micrograms Pbl-1 to greater than 300 micrograms Pbl-1 after 2 days. Saliva lead increased from 2.5 to 15 micrograms Pbl-1 in the same period. The rate of lead absorption through the skin increases with increased sweating of the skin. Since no measurable increase in blood lead has been found, the lead must be transported in the plasma and rapidly concentrated into the extracellular fluid pool (sweat and saliva), without significant uptake by the erythrocytes, and with a very low transient concentration in the plasma. Workers occupationally exposed to lead have extremely high levels of lead in sweat even though their lead in blood is only moderately elevated. Lead absorbed through the skin may be eliminated via sweat and other extracellular fluids, and hence not be as great a health hazard as ingested lead, but this will need to be proved by further studies.

PMID: 3238426 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

From a site in the UK, plus another link

Dermal absorption of inorganic lead compounds is generally quite low [4, 7]. One study reported increased levels in saliva and sweat following dermal exposure to inorganic lead, although blood or urine levels remained unchanged. It was postulated that the inorganic lead absorbed through the skin was transported in plasma and rapidly concentrated in sweat and saliva, without significant uptake by erythrocyes [2].

Found at: (link...)
The chemical make up of the substance. Inorganic chemicals and substances are not easily absorbed through intact, healthy skin (such as cadmium, lead, mercury, and chromium. Organic chemicals dissolved in water do not easily penetrate the skin because the skin is impermeable to water. However, organic solvents, such as paint thinner or gasoline, are easily absorbed through the epidermis.

found at (link...)

More to follow...


I thought the risk was through the mouth, not the skin

Thanks, RB! I had figured the main risk was in children putting their hands in their mouths after handling lead, or even in licking the lights or cords during installation, or in ingesting any broken-off bits of plastic etc..

-- OneTahiti

Well, I'm not through yet, OneT...

But here's what I've found so far:

1) inorganic lead salts or compounds, like PbO, CAN be absorbed through the skin. It is not absorbed very much. I haven't found how much it takes to be toxic yet.
2) In SOME - not all - wiring for this kind of lights (and other things) the PVC insulation has various kinds of stabilizers added to it to decrease degradation due to heat or weather, but especially heat. Over time, SOME of the lead MAY leach to the surface of the wire. These are literally microscopic amounts - nothing that can be seen with your eye.

THAT is the issue with so-called "lead in Christmas tree lights." What that phrase doesn't tell you is that such can be the case in ANY electric wire insulated by PVC, which happens to be the most common insulator for household-type electrical wiring. Some companies are moving away from using lead as a stabilizer in PVC, but it's still common and is WAY not limited to China.

What all that STILL doesn't tell us/me is this: Just how much lead is available on wires as small as those used for Christmas trees? Is that a toxic amount when exposure is once a year to put up and take down a tree? What IS a toxic dose of lead, and can that size dose readily be absorbed through rare casual contact with the wire? Given that the salts are on the surface of the wire as very, very small particles, to what extent does moving or rattling around the lights and the bundled wires in their boxes dislodge it from the insulation of the wire so that it is not likely to be placed on the skin?

Many sites will tell you that there is no acceptable dose of lead. That's one way to put it. However, it is also a fact that the environment provides each of us with a baseline lead load, mainly in the bones if the exposure is long enough. Quick exposure, such as may occur with dermal absorption, will show up in the blood.

While it is possible, at this time I highly question the likelihood of clinically significant doses of lead getting into the system from this casual and rare (once a year) exposure.

So - IF one won't get a toxic dose from HANDLING the wires, and one keeps the dang things out of one's mouth, there may be no practical or real danger from this. But I'm still workin...

I'll letcha know as I find out more.


Sorry, RB

The Christmas decoration -- that's right, it is a singular decoration -- cannot wait on your research and will have to go up, lead or not. Luckily, it does not require much more wire-touching than your average reading lamp.

But before it goes up, I am going to celebrate Thanksgiving.

I hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving. Spend some time with family if possible, wander and wonder a little outside, think of all we have, eat some turkey, and enjoy.

Mark - I agree with you, pal...

Since it is established that there can be FAR, FAR less exposure to the lead that MAY be there by touching it than by licking all the lead off the entire length of the wires (just who does that, anyway??), I say GO FOR IT!


PS - you do well, my friend. It's Thanksgiving FIRST. It AIN'T Christmas!

just found this, RB

This is from a CNN article last December: "In the four brands of lights tested, Quantex found surface lead levels far exceeding the CPSC's recommended children's limit of 15 micrograms.

Wal-Mart brand lights had the highest levels of surface lead, with levels ranging from 86.6 to 132.7 micrograms. GE lights showed surface lead levels from 68 to 109.1 micrograms. Sylvania had surface lead levels from 59 to 70.3 micrograms. Levels of surface lead in the lights made by Philips ranged from a low of 3.2 -- well under the 15 microgram limit -- to 107.2 in another sample.

For Trasande, the high levels of surface lead in the lights are a real concern." -- (link...)

-- OneTahiti

Thanks again, RB :)

I've been taking the long-term view. Lead, once in the environment, tends to stay there. And many folks do say there is no safe level.

If I knowingly bought leaded lights, I would worry about little bits leaching off into the soil at first during use and later during disposal, and building up over decades and centuries and millenia. I would worry about kids now and in the future seeing brightly colored wires and plastic and not having good handwashing practices or eating little bits. Now life is way too short for me to want to do all that worrying, so I avoid it by not buying the lead-labeled lights.

It seems sort of silly anyway to buy an imported, potentially dangerous luxury product when I don't have to. If I'm going to buy "an imported, potentially dangerous luxury product" it will be more like a computer than some lights. At least my computers haven't been labeled by California as covered with lead--yet. :)

Thanks again for all your help. And if you do find some "Made in USA," non-lead-labeled lights, please let me know? :)

-- OneTahiti

Interesting topic.... I

Interesting topic.... I always thought they were talking about the "lights" themselves being the source of lead paint. I'm referring to the bigger bulbs (the old fashioned kind) that are dipped in paint to produce different colors..

Inhaled lead dust

I found your wonderful site while researching the possibility of lead exposure from a certain brand of jewelry made for children. After reading the well-thought-out comments here I want to share a bit of what I found on the topic of lead poisoning.

I regret that I don't have time now to go into specifics or to go back and find the quotations for you, but you should be able to find it easily on some of the pages at (doctors writing for doctors, so you may need a dictionary), the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, and the Mayo Clinic.

Here's a quick summary of why your concerns are valid.
- Transdermal or percutaneous absorption of non-organic lead (the kind we encounter most commonly) is possible (especially through juvenile or broken skin), but minimal.
- Lead is more readily absorbed through ingestion. Accidental ingestion occurs through eating foods that have been in contact with leaded containers (some ceramic glazes, some soldered metals, lead crystal), hand-to-mouth contact after touching a lead contaminated object (like your Christmas lights), and licking or swallowing lead-containing objects (as children tend to do).
- The most direct route of lead absorption is through inhalation of lead dust. This dust arises from the gradual disintegration of thousands of products, among which are paints, PVC, and other plastics.

It seems to me this last route is what should worry us the most.

Remember the widely publicized recalls of vinyl mini-blinds in 1996? Unleaded gasoline was mandated in 1976 because of catalytic converter technology, and subsequently resulted in decrease of lead in soils, especially along roadways. Lead in house paint, though gradually decreasing since the 1950s, was finally banned only as recently as 1978. Before 1955, white exterior house paint was often 50% lead and 50% linseed oil. Lead residue is common in the soil around older houses, and in the air in pre-1978 homes, especially during remodeling.

Lead is very useful and has been employed by civilizations for thousands of years. It is all around us, and is persistent in the environment.

An average human body can contain 120mg of lead, and average daily consumption from a variety of sources is 500mcg. Lead that is not excreted or migrated to soft tissue, is stored in bone where it can be re-released into the blood years later during periods of physical stress that cause nutrient or calcium deficiencies.

In light of the above considerations, I think it is wise to avoid exposure to lead-containing products whenever we get the chance. California doesn't ban the Christmas lights, but their mandated labeling gives consumers information to make an educated choice. In a free market, if we all stop buying inferior or toxic products, companies will have to stop making them. Education is key.

Welcome, Arbee

And many thanks for the thoughtful and informative post. :)

-- OneTahiti

lead free Christmas lights

this company: (link...) sells RoHS compliant Christmas tree lights which with this certification... they are to be lead-free. The only thing is, they are from the UK and the voltage is different there than the USA. I think we may be able to get some sort of converter, but this company's website says to contact an electrician. I think they have a converter as of asking last year, but i sent them an e-mail this year to ask, and am waiting a reply. i have battery operated lights on my tree, which is better than nothing, but would really like bright lights on my tree and house ;( let me know if you find anything ! :) thanks!


Thanks! I will watch for them to be available here.

-- OneTahiti

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