Decorate Safely This Holiday Season

Dec. 17, 2008
Flickering candles, blinking holiday lights and fragrant evergreens are staples of the holiday season, but when used improperly, these holiday decorating “must haves” can pose deadly dangers. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) therefore urges consumers to keep safety in mind as they decorate for the holidays.

Each year, during the 60 days surrounding the winter holiday season, about 11,000 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms due to decoration-related injuries with falls, cuts, shocks and burns topping the list. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that each year, an average of 240 fires involving dried-out Christmas trees result in 16 deaths and $13 million in property damage. And CPSC estimates that an average of 13,000 candle-related fires occur annually, resulting in 170 deaths and $390 million in property damage.

“Deaths, injuries and the millions of dollars in property damage related to holiday-decorating hazards are preventable,” said CPSC Acting Chairman Nancy Nord. “Keep the holidays festive, by keeping your family and friends safe from harm.”

CPSC offers the following safety tips when decorating this year.

Trees and Decorations:

  • When purchasing an artificial tree, look for the label “fire resistant.” Although this label does not mean the tree won't catch fire, it does indicate the tree is more resistant to burning.
  • When purchasing a live tree, check for freshness. A fresh tree is green, needles are hard to pull from branches and do not break when bent between your fingers. The bottom of a fresh tree is sticky with resin, and when tapped on the ground, the tree should not lose many needles.
  • When setting up a tree at home, place it away from fireplaces, vents and radiators. Because heated rooms dry out live trees rapidly, be sure to keep the stand filled with water. Place the tree out of the way of traffic, and do not block doorways.
  • When trimming a tree, use only non-combustible or flame-resistant materials.
  • In homes with small children, take special care to avoid sharp or breakable decorations, keep trimmings with small removable parts out of the reach of children who could swallow or inhale small pieces, and avoid trimmings that resemble candy or food that may tempt a child to eat them.
  • To avoid lung irritation, follow container directions carefully while decorating with artificial snow sprays.

Lights:

  • Indoors or outside, use only lights that have been tested for safety by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as UL or ETL/ITSNA. Use only newer lights that have thicker wiring and safety fuses to prevent the wires from overheating.
  • Check each set of lights, new or old, for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires, or loose connections. Throw out damaged sets.
  • If using an extension cord, make sure it is rated for the intended use.
  • Do not use electric lights on a metallic tree. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty lights, and a person touching a branch could be electrocuted.
  • When using lights outdoors, check labels to be sure they have been certified for outdoor use and only plug them into a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protected receptacle or a portable GFCI.
  • Turn off all holiday lights when you go to bed or leave the house. The lights could short out and start a fire.

Candles:

  • Keep burning candles within sight.
  • Keep lighted candles away from items that can catch fire and burn easily, such as trees, other evergreens, decorations, curtains and furniture.
  • Always use non-flammable holders and keep away from children and pets.
  • Extinguish all candles before you go to bed, leave the room or leave the house.

Fireplaces:

  • Use care with “fire salts,” which produce colored flames when thrown on wood fires. They contain heavy metals that, if eaten, can cause intense gastrointestinal irritation and vomiting. Keep them away from children.
  • Do not burn wrapping paper or plastic items in the fireplace. These materials can ignite suddenly and burn intensely, resulting in a flash fire.
  • Place a screen around your fireplace to prevent sparks from igniting nearby flammable materials.

Visit CPSC’s Web site, http://www.cpsc.gov/, for a free brochure of holiday decorating and toy safety tips.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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