Christmas lights you already own may have lead on them

Some holiday lights may contain lead
(Source: WOIO)
(Source: WOIO)
(Source: WOIO)
(Source: WOIO)

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Christmas lights that are a few years old are likely to contain small amounts of lead, but there are ways to protect your children around the holidays.

We bought several lead tests at a local hardware store. A chemical reaction happens when the tests come into contact with lead, and the swab turns from yellow to red. Literature on the website for the lead check kits states that the testers will detect lead "down to 600 parts per million."

We tested five strands of lights, two sets, which were several years old, and they tested positive for lead. One additional undated set, and two brand new light sets we bought did not test positive for lead.

Director of adolescent medicine at the Cleveland Clinic said that while "no lead is good lead," there are some simple steps you and your children can take to protect against the small amounts of lead that may be present in light cords.

"Ornaments, lights, all the Christmas fun shouldn't go in their mouths," said Dr. Ellen Rome. "If they help with decorating, have them wash their hands before they go for that Christmas cookie."

Rome said that even a small amount of direct contact with a light strand that contains lead can potentially expose someone to lead, so it's best to watch your children around holiday decorations and make sure they always wash their hands after handling decorations.

She also stressed that Christmas lights are not the biggest threat of lead poisoning in a typical home.

"When we think of lead, the biggest exposure is still lead-based paint, lead in houses that have been built before 1976 and that's where most kids are getting their lead exposure," said Rome. "Lead from lead-based paint was used in every house built before 1976, so even if your house has been painted over and over again you may still have the dust of the ages there. So if your house is old and your child has not been tested go to your pediatrician and ask."

We also reached out to Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., the independent safety science company that's behind the UL tag. It does safety tests and certifications on things like Christmas lights. The UL Consumer Safety Director John Dregenberg, who is also an electrical engineer, explained that decades ago, manufacturers started adding lead to their PVC formulas to make the plastic flame retardant and more flexible.

"If the wires started to crack they'd eventually fall off and you'd have access to the live internal copper wire which varies the electricity so you don't want it to be rigid so much that it cracks," said Dregenberg. He also said that neither UL or the Consumer Product Safety Commission identified the amount of lead in the PVC as being a safety hazard.

Nonetheless, the industry has voluntarily changed the formula they use to eliminate lead from it as a result of bad publicity, said Dregenberg.

As a result of California's Proposition 65, everything that contains lead has to have a warning label on it, but since distributors like Wal-mart and Target send lights to many different states, those labels made it to states outside of California, he said.

Those labels led to questions from consumers and bad publicity, so the industry voluntarily changed the PVC formula to take the lead out, said Dregenberg. The fact that it was a voluntary change is important because there's no statutory deadline to point to when all lead was removed from all lights.

"Of course if you're a mom or a dad you want to make sure that your kids aren't being subjected to that because knowing that lead does cause, in certain quantities or over long periods of time, can cause brain damage especially in a child that's developing," said Dregenberg.

He said that newer lights don't usually have lead, and we tested two brand new strings and found no lead in the new lights. 

If consumers are concerned, there's another good reason to not reuse very old lights – potential fire danger.

"We always recommend with lights or decorations when you bring them out of storage to inspect them and if you see any damaged wire, frayed wire or cracked sockets, it's time to throw those things away," said Dregenberg. "The holidays families bring out their grandmothers table cloth - it's a family traditional holiday, and we always say don't reuse your grandfather's light strings because that's not the thing you want to use in remembrance of your grandfather." 

While Dregenberg couldn't give an educated guess as to how old lights would have to be to contain lead, he said if they are several years old there is a decent chance that they contain small amounts of lead.

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