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Christmas Tree Debate

The Great Christmas Tree Debate

Our family still uses cut Christmas tree but I certainly wish pesticides weren't used so heavily in their production. The irony is that trees are so easy to grow with organic techniques. Anyway, here's some of what's written about the issue so you can make up your own mind.

For those of us who want to be environmentally conscious but can't let go of the idea of enjoying a Christmas tree, the decision must be made whether to invest in a faux tree or enjoy a real tree.
It can be a monumental task just sorting through the information in the ongoing debate of which option is better for the earth. A helpful place to start is the Organic Consumers Association's compilation of articles assembled over the past year regarding Christmas trees and their impact on the environment.

Here is a collection of articles assembled over the last year regarding Christmas trees and their impact on the environment"    


Green Guide 117 | November/December 2006
Holiday Greenery, Lights and Ornaments
by P.W. McRandle

Decking the halls is a feat of interior design that takes a good eye and a green thumb. Yet, the holiday spirit can be dampened by the knowledge that monocrop tree farms use pesticides such as glyphosate (Roundup), associated with chest pains and nausea in humans and deadly to many fish and beneficial insects. Other pesticides used include the organophosphates di-syston 15-G, which can cause convulsions and unconsciousness, and dimethoate, which can cause tremors and breathing difficulties. But it's not that you'll need to wear a face mask around your tree. "Many pesticides will have been removed from trees by rain and ultraviolet light by the time they are harvested," says Dr. Thomas Arcury, Ph.D., professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "However, some will remain and, in particular, one, the systemic pesticide di-syston 15-G, may be present in the tree." Luckily, there are better choices to keep this holiday season healthy, organic and even fair-trade friendly.


For a list of specific pesticides used on Christmas trees,
click here.


Happier holidays: simple ways to celebrate the season in sustainable style
Natural Health,  Dec, 2005  by Janelle Brown

EVERY YEAR, roughly 35 million Christmas trees are cut down and sold, serving as a major source of holiday waste. Does that mean you should hang your ornaments on the coat rack?

"Don't feel guilty about buying a tree," says Deborah Gangloff, executive director of American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization. Holiday trees are grown as a sustainable crop; in fact, 1 acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen to support 18 people, and provides habitats for birds and wildlife. Buying an artificial tree isn't a better choice, since most faux foliage is made from earth-toxic PVC.

"The very best thing you can do is buy a live tree--not a cut tree, but a live tree, with a root ball," Gangloff advises. Live trees can be found at most nurseries and some tree lots. When you're done with it, plant the tree in your garden. This requires some forethought, particularly in colder climates where you'll need to break up the ground for planting before it freezes; you'll also need to keep a live tree moist, and indoors for no longer than a week. If that's not possible, purchase your cut tree from a tree farm that shuns pesticides and chemicals.

Unhappily, the vast majority of holiday trees end up in landfills, wrapped in plastic and trailing tinsel. Never dump your tree at the curb for the garbage collectors. Instead, take your de-decorated tree to a collection center, where it will be recycled--for example, ground up as mulch for use in city parks. To find one of the more than 3,800 centers that accept old trees (some curbside pickup), visit or call your city's public works department.

Chemical Christmas: immigrant tree farm workers face pesticide dangers
E: The Environmental Magazine,  Nov-Dec, 2005  by Jesse James DeConto

Every Christmas, little Katie Alvarez asks her daddy for two trees, one for her formal living room, and one for the family room. Katie has no idea what those trees might cost her father. Treating Christmas tree fields each spring, farm-worker Felix Alvarez, 43, soaks his skin with Roundup, a weedkiller linked to cancer among applicators. "Later on, when I get older, I'll probably have some consequence about it because I've been getting wet all over," Alvarez says.

Second only to Oregon, the state of North Carolina produces roughly one out of five Christmas trees sold in the U.S.--about five million a year, worth more than $100 million. Each spring and summer, Hispanic workers like Alvarez handle some of the deadliest pesticides allowed by law, potentially risking their health to help Americans celebrate life.

Fifty million Fraser firs grow on 25,000 acres in the mountains of North Carolina, and almost every acre is treated with Roundup. A salt compound, Roundup can irritate the eyes and is toxic when inhaled. In 1999, the American Cancer Society published the results of a survey of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma patients showing the disease was 2.7 times more likely among those who had applied glyphosate, the herbicide sold under the "Roundup" trade name.

The most hazardous and second-most common pesticide in North Carolina Christmas tree farming is Di-Syston 15-G, a powder traditionally applied with a bucket and measuring spoon. "If one grain gets in your boot, and your foot sweats, by the end of the day, you could be dead" says Richard Boylan, an alternative agriculture agent with the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.

Last year, Bayer CropSciences voluntarily discontinued Di-Syston 15-G for all crops other than Fraser firs in North Carolina and coffee in Puerto Rico. U.S. farms had previously used it for food crops such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, peanuts and peppers. The EPA had threatened to ban it completely, but North Carolina's Christmas tree growers worked to develop a new closed-system applicator that enables workers to pour the granules from a stainless-steel spout rather than scooping them from an open bucket. "We believe that the granular risks can be adequately mitigated by closed systems," says EPA spokesperson Enesta Jones.

Christmas tree farmers use Di-Syston to control balsam twig aphids in the spring, and its residues prevent spruce spider mites throughout the year. The aphids cuff needles and stunt growth in firs, sometimes enough to make them worthless; the spider mites discolor evergreen needles by sucking their sap.

"If they lost [Di-Syston] and didn't come up with something that would take its place, you can put the Christmas tree business out of business," one grower told Wake Forest University researcher Pamela Rao in a paper published in Human Organization.

Ever since a public outcry over childhood leukemia in the early 1990s, growers have been cutting pesticide use through a technique called Integrated Pest Management, which targets chemicals only where they're really needed. Between 1994 and 2000, growers reduced Di-Syston use from 65 percent of total acreage to 50 percent, according to North Carolina State Christmas tree specialist Jill Sidebottom.

"The industry has grown a lot," says Debbie Fishel, whose Grouse Ridge Farms employ 30 to 60 Hispanic workers each year. "I live in the same area they do and drink the same water. I am exposed to the same environment they are, and we have become aware of the risks."

As they have reduced reliance on Di-Syston, growers have increased the spread of other insecticides, including Dimethoate, Lindane and Asana, all slightly or moderately toxic chemicals. Though Lindane is the least immediately harmful of these, the EPA banned it in 2002 for its chronic effects and persistence in the environment.

Like Di-Syston, Dimethoate is an organophosphate that can cause numbness, tingling sensations, headaches, dizziness, tremors, nausea, abdominal cramps, sweating, blurred vision, difficulty breathing and slow heartbeat, experts say.

Asana is another spray that controls the balsam woolly adelgid, a European insect that has devastated Fraser firs in forest stands, flattening their tops, swelling their joints and hardening their wood. A worker poisoned with Asana could experience dizziness, burning, itching, blurred vision, tightness in the chest, convulsions, nausea, vomiting, headache, weakness or tremors, according to EXTOXNET, a network of university cooperative extension offices from across the United States. As with Dimethoate, swallowing less than two tablespoons of Asana can kill a grown man.

"Asana can make your skin burn for about six hours" said one Christmas tree worker in 2001. "Sometimes I can't sleep at night because my face burns so much. I use a mask and glasses, but there are still parts of my face that aren't covered, and the spray gets on your face anyway."


O Christmas tree, are ye real or fake?

San Francisco Chronicle

The cultural minefield of December has another politically loaded question to tiptoe around: Will you purchase a real tree or an artificial one?

And then, what will you call it?

Your answer will speak to your commitment to protecting American jobs, reducing the trade deficit, preventing environmental destruction, helping us breathe and, of course, showing where you stand on the Rev. Jerry Falwell's efforts to counter what he calls the anti-Christian "war on Christmas."

The choice between real and not real is especially painful for some environmentalists. Either they desecrate Earth and chop down a tree or buy a fake one that's full of landfill-clogging polyvinyl chloride, which is kryptonite to greenies.

Salting a tree with pesticides and then chopping it down for a mere two weeks of display time isn't a great option. Ask San Francisco forest activist Kristi Chester Vance. When she invited friends to a party at her place this month, she warned her environmentalist pals on the guest list:

There will be a tree here.

"I'm a forest activist, and there's a dead tree in the middle of my house," she said. "Geez, if I have a tree, why not nail the last snow leopard to the wall, too?"

She acknowledges, though, that most Christmas trees are farmed like an agricultural product. "It's kind of like corn," she said. "It would be best to get an organic one, of course."

As an alternative, Sierra Magazine, a Sierra Club publication, suggests: "For a natural look, try making your own tree of trimmed evergreen boughs, a storm-felled branch, or a piece of driftwood."

San Francisco's Department of the Environment began a program this year for those averse to stringing lights on driftwood. For $90, the city will bring a live, 7- to 9-foot potted tree to your home for you to decorate. After Christmas, the city will retrieve it and plant it in one of San Francisco's tree-starved neighborhoods.

But the city isn't offering pines. Officials said pines don't make the best street trees.

Instead, they suggested hanging tinsel on a primrose, a Brisbane box tree or a fruitless olive tree. The program proved so popular that it sold out its stock of 100 trees in four days. It will return next year.

Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, a field marshal for the conservative counter-campaign against the "war on Christmas," will be happy to know that San Francisco called this its "Dreaming of a Green Christmas" tree program. Not that there wasn't discussion about other names.

"Some people wanted to call it a 'peace tree' or a 'holiday tree,' " said Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment. "But we figured that only people who would be celebrating Christmas would want one for the most part."

Deciding between real and fake trees wasn't always an ethical nightmare. The decision used to be more about one's tolerance for cleaning up pine needles.

But several years ago, America's tree growers started noticing that artificial trees were steadily gaining market share. In 1990, about half of U.S. tree-displaying homes were putting up artificial trees. In 2002, that number had grown to roughly 60 percent, say growers and fake-tree makers. Purchases of real trees declined from 32 million in 2002 to 23.4 million in 2004, according the National Christmas Tree Association.

So Christmas-tree growers got serious about telling their story. They hired a marketing firm that for decades had specialized in Republican political campaigns. The firm, Smith and Harroff, advocated reaching out to Generation Y (now there's an animated "Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees" interactive game on the National Christmas Tree Association's Web site), Latinos (the association's materials are being translated into Spanish), first-time homebuyers and gays.

Now, as possibly only a Douglas fir can do, Christmas trees have bridged a cultural divide. The firm that once consulted for the Republican National Committee was cooing about landing a pro-real-tree reference on TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" show last year.

Farmers talk about how buying a real tree protects U.S. jobs. China _ the leading exporter of fake trees _ shipped $69 million worth of artificial pines to the United States from January through August of this year, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Overall, the artificial-tree trade deficit last year was $145 million, according to census statistics.

More than 100,000 Americans are employed by the real-Christmas-tree industry, according to its trade association.

Farmers say buying a Christmas tree is about protecting the environment. The National Christmas Tree Association takes it a step further, boasting that an acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people. And it's trying to be a do-gooder, too, donating 4,000 trees this month to U.S. military personnel.

The artificial-tree industry has taken notice. And the handful of U.S. manufacturers has started to swing back.

"The tree farmers have definitely been more aggressive with their marketing the past couple of years," said Daniel Hanley, an administrator with Holiday Tree and Trim, which points out that it has been making artificial trees for 40 years with good ol' American workers in Bayonne, N.J. "But we're really on the same side as the tree farmers in terms of not wanting to see American jobs overseas."

The artificial-tree builders boast a celebrity endorser to counter the tree farmers' new friends from "Queer Eye." They recently were the subject of a favorable profile on "Made in America," a Travel Channel program hosted by John Ratzenberger, best known for his work as Cliff on "Cheers."

Hanley disputed the farmers' contention that fake trees generally end up in landfills after six to 10 years of use. "We offer a warranty for 50 years," he said. "We intend for them to be heirlooms, something that is passed down from one generation to another.

"Plus, that means that a tree has not been cut down," Hanley said. "And think of all the pesticides and fertilizers that are used to keep that (real) tree going. And it's only going to be used for two weeks. Are they all recycled after that?"

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