Worried About 'Toxic Toys' This Holiday? Worry About Toxic Plants Instead

Related articles

MistletoeEvery year around this time, scare-mongers such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) issue alerts about allegedly toxic toys, but they would warn you about nature at Christmas if they really cared.

Instead of using real toxicity, they create "chemicals of concern" based on their own unique system of being a hazard that no scientists recognize. Rather than worry about health scare like BPA and phthalates, GMO food or whatever they call "endocrine disruptors" in nail polish, here's some real food for thought about chemical risk.

Do not let your child put these favorite holiday decorative flora in their mouths! (Don't you do it either.)

Mistletoe: Mistletoe berries contain phoratoxin, a chemical that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In high enough doses, it can lead to arrhythmias and death, but that would require eating at least 20 berries. However, smaller doses have caused death in individuals who tried to brew tea from the plant for its supposed health benefits.

Holly: The red berries found on boughs of holly contain saponins, a class of molecules similar to the heart drug digitalis. In high enough doses they, too, can cause vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Holly also contains theobromine, which is in the same chemical family as caffeine or the asthma medication theophylline. Theobromine is not dangerous to humans but can cause seizures and arrhythmias in dogs and cats that are unable to metabolize the enzyme.

Mint: Minty decorations, sometimes with menthol, can be highly toxic if ingested. Methyl salicylate is a key component of mint, and too much can raise blood salicylate levels to the toxic range; deaths have been reported (aspirin overdosage acts through the same mechanism: it's acetyl salicylate).

Contrary to a common belief, the poinsettia flower is harmless, but its latex sap can cause irritation to the skin or stinging if rubbed in the eye. If eaten, it could also irritate the stomach lining. If ingested by a child, a glass of milk will almost always be "curative."

On children's safety issues unrelated to holiday decorations: parents should be more worried about small toys, dice from games, marbles, and tiny batteries that can all be choking hazard for a child. Batteries are especially dangerous because they contain sodium or potassium hydroxide, which can damage the tissue of the esophagus when swallowed.

Leftover adult drinks are another often-overlooked hazard. Mixed with sugary sodas or brightly colored fruit juices, drinks such as vodka, gin, and whisky can make an appealing target for kids. Even small doses of liquor can be dangerous for very little ones.

There is another family member to be mindful of, as well, during the holidays: your pet. Rob Halpin, a spokesman for the Massachusetts SPCA, said mistletoe and holly can make dogs and cats nauseous and lethargic.

If a child does accidentally eat a poisonous leaf or berry, parents should first call the National Capital Poison Center at 800-222-1222. Most cases do not require medical attention and can usually be handled over the phone.