The holiday season is a happy time, but it can also be an accident waiting to happen.
Now that the celebration of Christmas, and all its decorations, has quietly crept back into early November, it’s a longer season — and more can go wrong, for way, way longer.
From lead-dusted strings of lights, to intestine-twisting tinsel in pets’ stomachs, to lit Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras that don’t stay upright, being alert and watchful with kids and pets (and possibly drunk people) is really, really important this time of year.
A DEAD TREE? IN THE HOUSE? Trees can be a big fire risk, so if you get a live tree, make sure it is green, and stays green, while you have it. Remember, there’s nothing all that natural about keeping a big, dying piece of woody vegetation in the house, so you need to stay on that, especially if you get the tree weeks before Dec. 25.
The CPSC recommends cutting 2 inches off the trunk of the tree so that it can absorb the water in the stand, which must be kept full of water — for the whole time you have the tree. Check it each day, if not more often. A tree can easily get dried out in an arid environment, like a heated room, and especially in low-humidity parts of the country, such as Arizona and California.
Artificial trees are fire-resistant, in most cases, but that benefit also comes with a good influx of lead, PVC and other chemicals to your living space.
Make sure you and Santa and the kids don’t put the gifts too close to lights that are on. Even pretty Christmas paper could catch fire eventually if it’s pressed up against hot lights. LED lights are a safe, cooler option, but they’re newer and more expensive — and therefore much more unusual to see in people’s houses, so far.
Also, check your strings of lights each year for any obvious fraying that could lead to a fire. Better fire-safe than sorry.
The short version: MAKE SURE TREES AND PRESENTS DON’T GET SET ON FIRE
DANGEROUS PLANTS: The poinsettia is one of the leading plant symbols of the holidays, but
it’s toxic and not safe to keep around pets or small kids or any other people, who can become quite ill if they eat it.
Holly, ivy and the deadly mistletoe are even more dangerous to your pets (and people) if they decide to snack on it, according to PetMD. And a pretty flowering plant popular around the holidays, the amaryllis, can also be very bad news for pets and people, causing symptoms that range from vomiting and diarrhea to tremors if it’s eaten by pets.
Tinsel is a big no-no with pets around, or kids who stick everything in their mouths too. It’s sparkly, but if they swallow it, it can lead to a nasty obstructed digestive tract.
The short version: MAKE SURE PETS AND KIDS DON’T EAT PRETTY PLANTS AND TINSEL.
LEAD: You don’t want lead in your house, but with standard U.S. Christmas decorations, you’re likely getting exposed to at least a little of it. There is no known safe level of lead exposure for kids or pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a known neurotoxin, and the according to the EPA, it’s also a probable human carcinogen. Lead poisoning, usually caused by ingestion or breathing in lead dust, often over extended periods of time, can affect kids’ intelligence and ability to pay attention, as well as cause irritability, seizures and hearing loss, among many other symptoms.
And adults can suffer effects from lead exposure and high blood lead levels, too. Wash hands well after handling lights, ornaments and any cheap imported novelty items.
The lights you string up all over are almost always made with some lead, which helps act as a protective coating and flame retardant for the wires, so it’s not a great idea to have kids handle them much. Washing children’s hands very well with soap and water after touching the lights and ornaments is a good precaution. You also don’t want the little ones rolling themselves up in lights — whether on or off — for any photo ops. No one wants their child coated in neutrotoxic lead residue, or burned.
Since most people keep their Christmas lights for years, there is the potential for frayed wires that could give kids a good shock, as well as for worn wires that are shedding lead as a fine, toxic dust.
(Quick note: European lights’ wiring is not coated in lead, by law, which is an issue I’d like to explore in a later column.)
The short version: DON’T LET KIDS PLAY WITH THE LIGHTS. OR ANY WIRES, EVER. LEAD AND SHOCKS ARE BAD. BAD!
FIRES: Since house fires are a huge concern during the holidays, make sure to check all the smoke detectors. The National Fire Protection Association recommends a smoke detector in every bedroom, and another just outside every bedroom, as well as one on every level of your house. Put one in the basement, too, and make sure there are smoke detectors near steps.
Make sure the batteries are current. (To do this, press the button on the detector until you hear a beep. If the detector has been chirping periodically, replace those batteries immediately. Don’t take chances with this stuff, at any time of year. It’s not worth it.)
Check all of the smoke detectors each month, to make sure they can still do their job.
Another important step is to have a fire escape plan with your family or other residents of the home,
It’s also a great idea to have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen for any blazes that start up from cooking. (Just make sure it isn’t a Kidde extinguisher with a plastic handle, which are currently on recall by the Consumer Product Safety Commission because they can, well, fail to work.)
The short version: CHECK YOUR SMOKE DETECTOR BATTERIES (AND MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A FIRE EXTINGUISHER TOO).
CANDLE SAFETY: This should go without saying, but keep all candle holders level and out of reach of kids and curious pets. (Cats, I’m looking at you.)
The candles should be far from any drapery or napkins or paper, or anything else that can burn. Keep them out of drafty rooms that might send sparks towards drapes or other fabric.
The best strategy is to not ever leave any candle unattended, and make sure the flame is out before you go to bed.
The short version: DON’T LET CANDLES BURN UP YOUR HOUSE.
STAY SOBER AND SANE: If you’ve had one too many eggnogs, please call an Uber or Lyft or a sober friend. Or just stay at the party.
If you’re out shopping and become helplessly trapped in your car in a jammed mall parking garage (or get stuck in gridlock and you’re losing it), turn on some music and ride it out. The maddening crush of holiday shoppers comes just once each year, and it will be January before you know it.
The short version: DON’T BE A DRUNK DRIVER OR A ROAD-RAGING IDIOT.
Got any safety tips to share? Tell us in the comments.