Christmas tree farm in Iowa (public domain photo from USDA)
In early December in Portland I saw my first live Christmas tree of the season strapped to the top of a car. I was saddened. Not because I don’t celebrate Christmas (even though I don’t) but because the Christmas tree industry is so harmful.
In the days that followed, I saw tree lots springing up all around town. Many had signs reading, “Local,” which I thought was pretty funny because what else would they be? Oregon is the biggest grower of Christmas trees in the US, with 42,000 acres producing five to seven million trees per year. Clackamas county, which grows the most in the state, is right next to Portland. So, local? Yeah. But, sustainable? Nope.
I first became aware of the toxic nature of Christmas tree farming in 2011 when I was farming in Polk County with my friend Clarabelle, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Though not as prevalent as grass seed farms (which take up fully half of the farmland in the valley) Christmas tree plantations were a common sight, often on slopes that are less suitable for other crops. Our concern—since we were organic growers coming into this zone of conventional agriculture—was what chemicals were being used nearby and in our watershed that might taint our own crops. We didn’t like what we found and only planted there one season.
Chemically speaking, conventional farming is a dirty business, and when the crop isn’t food, it’s even worse. With Christmas tree farming, synthetic chemical use is virtually ubiquitous, with organic trees making up just 1% of the market. Aesthetics are obviously of paramount importance with this product, and a sleigh-load of toxic substances are used to kill pests, strike down diseases and accentuate their color. Six to ten years of this damaging activity goes into making a decoration that is displayed for a few weeks and then usually sent to the landfill.
Over 90% of Oregon trees are exported to other states and different countries, with Mexico importing nearly a quarter of all the Douglas-firs that are cut. Since other nations (and the state of Hawaii) have strict rules forbidding the importation of pests, chemical treatment of these trees is compulsory.
It’s easy to say (or read), “Christmas tree farms use toxic chemicals,” and then move right along without anything sinking in. So I am presenting a list of pesticides that are routinely used in Christmas tree cultivation, along with some of their known effects on animals and humans. I want to convey a sense of just how dangerous the business is to the environment and to the people who work in it.
There are a few types of substances in the list. “Organophosphate” insecticides work the same way as chemical warfare nerve agents such as sarin. Humans exposed to organophosphates through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact just once can experience a wide range of symptoms including nausea, dizziness, confusion, weakness, headaches, tightness in the chest, coughing, blurred vision, nonreactive pinpoint pupils, salivation, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and slurred speech. In extreme cases, poisoning results in respiratory paralysis and death. Repeated exposure can lead to long-term problems with memory and concentration, depression and moodiness, speech and reflexes, and nightmares and insomnia.
“Organochlorine” insecticides affect the central nervous system. In humans, inhalation can cause irritation of the throat and mucus membranes, blurry vision and respiratory problems. Skin contact can lead to dermatitis and eye contact to conjunctivitis. Ingestion can lead to nausea, vomiting, mental confusion, seizures and unconsciousness. Very serious cases can result in death. Chronic exposure can cause kidney and liver damage, anorexia and central nervous system disorders.
“Pyrethroid” insecticides are extracted from certain types of Chrysanthemum flowers, which might sound benign, but they are highly toxic to fish and other aquatic animals. Pyrethroids have mild effects on humans and naturally derived forms are allowed in certified organic agriculture.
“Herbicides” are plant-killers, used to suppress weeds. “Roundup” is a well-known herbicide. Different herbicides cause various deleterious effects on human health both short and long term. See list for specifics.
The danger of these chemicals is not necessarily that you are bringing poisons into your home when you buy a Christmas tree. Most of these substances are applied in the spring and summer and have had time to dissipate or be rained off by the time the tree is cut down in the winter. However, the fauna and flora of the ecosystems on or nearby the farms are directly affected season after season. As for humans, farmworkers are regularly the victims of chemical poisoning. This is especially problematic since farmworkers are often undocumented immigrants with inadequate health care, narrow employment options and little legal recourse. So with Christmas trees we have environmental abuses compounded by human rights issues.
Here, then, is a list of chemicals that is not comprehensive but is bad enough as it stands. I have provided the scientific name, with common or brand names in parenthesis, so you can look these substances up yourself for confirmation or more information. The abbreviation, “PAN BA,” designates the substance as being on the Pesticide Action Network’s “Bad Actor” list of “most toxic” chemicals.
Acephate (Orthene): organophosphate insecticide used to kill aphids. It is moderately toxic to birds and even in small quantities, can confuse the navigation systems of songbirds such as the white-throated sparrow so that they are unable to tell north from south. PAN BA
Atrazine: herbicide, second most widely used in the US after glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup). Banned by the European Union in 2004 and approved as safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that same year. It is highly persistent in water and is the most commonly detected pesticide in drinking water in the US. Its environmental and health effects are a subject of controversy due to the wildly contradictory results of different studies, but many of the “it’s safe” claims have come from research sponsored by Syngentia, atrazine’s producer. Nonetheless, atrazine has been implicated with hermaphroditism in frog tadpoles and with birth defects in humans. Atrazine is also plausibly linked to cancer because it stimulates a cancer-promoting substance in the body called aromatase. Interestingly, Syngenta also manufactures aromatase inhibiting drugs for cancer treatment, so, though they deny their herbicide’s health effects, they’ve got their bases covered, profit-wise. In 2012, Syngenta settled a class-action lawsuit over atrazine in water supplies, agreeing to pay $105 million in damages, but denying any wrongdoing as part of the deal. PAN BA
Biphenthrin/Bifenthrin (Talstar): pyrethroid insecticide. Affects bees by decreasing their reproductive rate and slowing their maturation. Extremely toxic to fish, which it kills by inhibiting their ability to take up oxygen through their gills.
Carbaryl (Sevin): Third-most-used insecticide in the United State. Moderately toxic to fish and can have sever effects on mice and rabbits. For humans, it can cause nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, difficulty breathing and comas. PAN BA
Chlorpyrifos (Dursban, Lorsban, Killmaster): organophosphate insecticide used on mites. Highly toxic to birds, extremely toxic to fish. nervous system damage in humans, incl. headaches to unconsciousness; exposure has been linked to neurological effects. Banned for home use since 2001 since fetal exposure leads to the retardation of mental development and autoimmune disorders. However it remains one of the most used organophosphates in agriculture. PAN BA
Cyfluthrin (Tempo): pyrethroid insecticide. Extremely toxic to fish.
Diazinon (Diazinon, Spectracide, Knox-Out): organophosphate insecticide developed in 1952 to replace DDT. Hazardous to fish and birds. Banned by the EPA in 1988 on golf courses and sod farms because it regularly killed birds that congregated in such places. Banned for residential use in 2004. PAN BA
Dicofol (Kelthane): organochlorine pesticide closely related to DDT. Highly toxic to fish and birds. In the latter, it leads to egg-shell thinning. Dicofol can be stored in fatty tissue with the result that symptoms can reappear long after exposure following intense physical activity or starvation. The EPA considers it a possible human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). PAN BA
Dimethoate (Cygon, De-Fend): organophosphate insecticide used to kill mites and aphids. Highly toxic to honeybees. PAN BA
Esfenvalerate (Asana XL): synthetic pyrethroid insecticide that is extremely toxic to fish.
Ethion (Nialate): organophosphate insecticide. Highly toxic to fish, moderately toxic to birds and mammals. Ethion was approved for use based on data from Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories (IBT), which is pretty sketchy. In court proceedings in the early 80’s, it was proven that IBT widely engaged in scientific misconduct, and its president and several top executives were convicted of fraud. PAN BA
Fenbutatin-oxide (Vendex): insecticide that specifically target mites, but is also used for aphids, thrips, mealybugs, whiteflies and scales. It is a severe eye irritant in humans, and is also highly toxic to aquatic organisms. PAN BA
Fenitrothion (Sumithion): organophosphate insecticide. Highly toxic to birds and moderately toxic to fish. In humans, causes nausea, dizziness, headaches, and in higher doses, seizures and loss of consciousness. PAN BA
Fluvalinate (Mavrik): pyrethroid insecticide used to kill mites. Extremely toxic to fish.
Hexazinone (Velpar): herbicide used to kill weeds and grasses. Slightly toxic to fish. Known ground water contaminant. In studies, caused rats and dogs to lose weight and decreased the size of fetal rats. PAN BA
Hexythiazox (Savey): insecticide. Moderately toxic to fish. Considered a “likely” carcinogen by the EPA. PAN BA
Glyphosate (active ingredient in Roundup): herbicide that is not strongly toxic alone, but becomes more dangerous when formulated with other substances, which it almost always is. Roundup comes in several such formulations that are much more toxic to amphibians and fish and have occasionally been used by despondent farmers to kill themselves with. Glyphosate has been found to be an endocrine disruptor that is linked to birth defects.
Isazofos (Triumph): insecticide that is extremely toxic to fish, highly toxic to birds and moderately toxic to mammals, including rabbits. Humans who come into contact with it are advised to dispose of any clothing it has touched. PAN BA
Malathion (Cythion): organophosphate insecticide that is a neurotoxin and is extremely toxic to aquatic animals and moderately toxic to birds. Well known in its use for mosquito eradication. In 1998, its use against a medfly outbreak in Florida led to 123 people becoming ill. PAN BA
Oxydemeton-methyl (Metasystox-R): organothiophosphate insecticide primarily used to control aphids, mites, and thrips. Highly toxic to birds, moderately toxic to mammals.
Oxythioquinox (Morestan): insecticide and fungicide (fungus killer) highly toxic to fish. PAN BA
Permethrin (Atroban, Ambush, Pounce, Pramex): synthetic pyrethroid insecticide that is extremely toxic to fish and is lethal for bees. PAN BA
Phosmet (Imidan): organophosphate insecticide used for aphids and mites, highly toxic to fish and moderately toxic to mammals. PAN BA
Pyrethrum (Pyrethrin, Sectrol): pyrethroid insecticide that is highly toxic to aquatic animals.
What a poisonous picture this paints! And no amount of tinsel and twinkling lights can make it pretty.
Chemicals applied outdoors enter the greater environment in a number of ways. Some are taken up by the plant tissues, including nectar, and consumed by animals and insects. Others leach into groundwater, persist in the soil, or are carried into nearby waterways with run-off from irrigation or rain. Nitrogen fertilizers commonly lead to algae blooms and a resulting lack of oxygen in surface water in agricultural areas. Fish and other aquatic animals suffer. Chemicals that are applied through spraying can be carried by the wind onto neighboring areas, which Clarabelle and I experienced more than once when the blueberry farm next to our place sprayed. One application in particular gave us headaches and made my heart race. No chemical has been developed that respects property lines.
A 2008 report from the US Geological Survey [PDF] found 63 different herbicides and pesticides in the Clackamas River watershed, of which 15 were still present in drinking water after treatment. Christmas tree farms are not the only agricultural operations in this 940 square mile area, but they are common there.
The companies that produce agricultural chemicals are no angels. BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, Dupont, Dow Chemical Company and Syngenta together control about 3/4 of the industry worldwide. You could hang an ornament for each one on your tree to show your appreciation for their part in producing your holiday centerpiece.
Live Christmas trees have been losing market share to fake trees for a couple decades now. While the causes of this are not clear, apparently needles on the carpet is one of the consumer complaints. The live Christmas tree industry is not happy about this trend and has been marketing itself, in part, as the “greener” alternative.
Environmentally, there is no defense for fake trees. They are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, often contain lead, and are manufactured in China. If they catch fire, they release hydrogen chloride gas and dioxin. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, who found in a 2002 study that three out of four fake trees tested contained lead, recommend that children, pets and presents be kept away from fake trees and that vacuuming underneath them should be avoided in order to reduce risk of exposure through skin contact or inhalation. True, this university is in the state that is ranked second in the US for Christmas tree production, and perhaps they have a vested interest in dissing fake trees, but heavy metal poisoning isn’t something to fool around with.
But I still wouldn’t call live Christmas trees the lesser of two evils, partly because I don’t think the calculus is that simple, but mostly because I don’t want to encourage that particular rationalization in decision-making; choosing between evils doesn’t get us anything good. Less degradation of the environment and human health (if that is the case) is still degradation. How about going for none?
Here are three of the claims made by Christmas tree growers about how their industry is environmental or resource-responsible.
Christmas tree farms are carbon sinks and, according to the industry, each acre produces enough oxygen for 18 people. I have no way of knowing if the latter claim is accurate, but what I do know is that these trees would perform better in both functions if they were not cut down and were allowed to become forests. Considering how densely such farms are planted (usually about 2000 trees per acres), some thinning would need to happen along the way, so that would be a few more Christmas trees at first, as a kind of consolation prize.
Christmas tree farms provide “green space” and habitat for wildlife. The first part lifts a catchphrase from the anti-urban sprawl movement, so it sounds right to city liberals, but not all “green space” is equally “green” and certainly not space that has chemicals dumped on it so regularly. As for wildlife, as we saw above, all sorts of animals are affected by the pesticides used on these farms, including the embattled honey bee. Keep in mind, too, that the “weeds” that herbicides kill between the trees include native flora. The utterly bare ground beneath the trees on most Christmas tree farms is not “habitat” for much of anything.
Christmas trees are often grown on “marginal” land that is too poor for other agricultural crops. True. But this is only a justification if one considers land “wasted” when it’s not being used to produce a cash crop (as opposed to being left for wildlife), and that rapacious attitude is clearly part of the problem in the first place. Farms that grow ornamental plants use the same resources as food-producing farms—irrigation water, fuel, etc.—that are dwindling or destructively-sourced and it’s time we consider whether that’s worth it.
What about organic Christmas trees? Nope. First of all, organic agriculture does not, despite popular perception, mean “no chemicals.” Synthetic chemicals are not allowed, but some naturally derived ones are. An example is pyrethrum, which—as mentioned above—is extremely toxic to aquatic animals and mildly to moderately toxic to birds. Its very low toxicity to humans is a reason it is allowed in organic farming, but it’s still a killer of beneficial insects along with the pests. When it comes to food, which is a necessity, organic is the better choice for sure, but a Christmas tree is a non-edible ornamental and the damage to other living things cannot be justified on the same grounds.
(If you do research looking for an organic Christmas tree, you will probably run across a couple of other certifications that claim to be greener than conventional methods. One is SERF [Socially & Environmentally Responsible Farms], but their standards are more lenient than organic specifications. They utilize a method called Integrated Pest Management [IPM] that reduces but does not eliminate the use of pesticides. Still no good.)
What about buying a potted tree? One that you can plant after you’re done with it? Sounds great, but remember that it came from a tree farm or nursery to start with, so the other downsides mentioned above still apply. You’re not in the clear yet, though I’m certainly not going to tell you to not plant a tree!
If I were held at gunpoint and forced to provide a Christmas tree, I would probably go thin something from one of the overcrowded monocrop timber plantations that are plentiful here in the Pacific Northwest. This can even be done legally on public land after paying a small fee. Such trees might have been sprayed when they were young but are otherwise de facto organic. Obviously, though, this isn’t something everyone can or should do.
Then there is the non-tree tree. I’ve visited hippie households where lights were strung on something else—a piece of driftwood, a large branch, that rusty metal “sculpture” an artsy roommate left behind, etc.—and the results were charming and fun. This year, a friend sent me a photo of what’s now my favorite alternative so far: a tall cat tower hung with all the expected decorations, including a big star on top. As any cat-owned person knows, your feline friend is going to climb whatever you install, so why not cater to them completely?
Barring that type of creativity, though, what I really recommend is no tree at all. Yes, I can already hear the response: “What? No tree? But it’s Christmas!” Yes, I know, and that’s why this is very best option to consider, even if you still end up getting one. Why? Because collectively and individually our actions are almost entirely unexamined, and we can’t go on that way. We’ve got to look more closely at our choices and at the attitudes, beliefs and habits-of-mind that inform them.
Here in the techno-industrial world, we treat our luxuries like necessities and our privileges like rights. The machine that empowers our indulgences and provides our presents does so at great cost to life all over the planet: human, animal, plant and so on. The crisis we are facing is primarily one of consciousness—of disconnection from nature, of deadened awareness, of lack of empathy—so we must question all of our desires. Starting with the spurious extras like holiday decorations should be a no-brainer. That’s all that Christmas trees are, after all: decorations. This subject doesn’t even rise to the level of rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship. And the ship is definitely sinking.
The Christmas tree is not sacred. Its status as a “tradition” is much more a product of the advertising industry than of historical fact. Celebrations of the Christian holiday or of the Winter Solstice can be held festively and joyously without consumerism. The bottom-line: We must stop hurting and killing things just to fulfill our sentimental desires.
* * * * *
“Big 6″” Pesticide and GMO Corporations
Is Your Artificial Christmas Tree Toxic?
Artificial Christmas trees: how real are the lead exposure risks? (university study)
Clackamas Watershed Collects Pollutants And Drinking Water
Christmas Tree Profile (at Agricultural Marketing Research Center)
Christmas Tree Resources at Oregon State University
Christmas Trees and Pesticides
Extension Toxicology Network
Is Your Christmas Tree Sprayed With Pesticides?
National Christmas Tree Association
North Carolina State Extension – Christmas Trees
Oregon: The Christmas tree capital
Organic Compounds in Clackamas River Water Used for Public Supply near Portland, Oregon, 2003–05
Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association
Pesticide Action Network
Pesticide Occurrence and Distribution in the Lower Clackamas River Basin, Oregon, 2000–2005
Pesticides & Wildlife: Christmas Trees
Seasons Greening: How Christmas Tree Farmers Are Cutting Down on Pesticides
SERF Certification – Socially & Environmentally Responsible Farms
The Environmental Choice: The Real Christmas Tree vs. The Fake Christmas Tree (from the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association)
The Pesticide Encyclopedia by Kalyani Paranjape, Vasant Gowariker, V N Krishnamurthy, Sugha Gowariker (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International: 2015)
What it takes to grow organic Christmas trees