Christmas Tree Allergy: Allergic To Christmas?

Hey, when I was a kid nobody could even conceive of anything like Christmas tree allergy.

As a boy, my family seldom had much to celebrate at Christmas - my GI generation dad never forgot the big war (air medal, Purple Heart, POW Stalag Luft One 1944-45). Poverty and sacrifice were the dominant themes. But in 1956 my grandfather's oil wells had come in and times turned fat.

That Christmas was a turning point for an extended family of 50. Grampa's farm house had a large living room. An enormous tree, centered in the north windows, was adorned with lights and ornaments I never knew existed. At home, we couldn't afford a tree. Our only Christmas decorations were made of plain popcorn strung together with needle and thread. Guess who had to do the stringing.

Across Granpa's entire 16 wide foot north wall, flowing out to a depth of at least 8 feet, was the most enormous pile of high-dollar presents a 1950's kid could dream of. My jaw dropped. As each of my cousins filtered in that Christmas Eve, I whispered "You gotta see this" as we peeked at the cornicopia in the living room. My aunt and her new husband arrived in a brand new two tone 1956 Lincoln – electric windows and power antenna! I have never forgotten that powerful image of newfound prosperity surrounding a ceremonial tree - the American dream of the 1950's coming true.

Every year after that there was always going to be a tree. So I had to learn about Christmas tree allergy the hard way.

In the 1980's, my health declined into multiple allergies and severe chemical sensitivity, I moved my family to the country. For many years, my kids and I cut suitable Christmas trees on our own property, dragged them indoors, and kept them up until they turned brown. My illness was always worse in winter. Then one January day it came time to take down the tree. Wife and kids removed the lights and ornaments, but it was my duty to drag the dead tree outside and burn it.

The boys had picked a huge tree, over ten feet tall for our cabin's loft ceiling. Now stiff and dry after a month, it wouldn't fit out the door. After wrestling with the monster for about 15 minutes, I knew beyond a doubt I was allergic to that tree, a Mountain Juniper. We have hundreds of these, some grow right next to the house - I am not allergic to the live trees or their pollen - it had to be something about bringing a dead tree indoors. I was sick for three days. That was when we began to look for hypoallergenic alternatives to the Christmas tree tradition. We eventually switched to using living trees, which are set up and decorated on the deck outside, and get planted after use. Our earliest recycled Christmas decorations, a couple pines, are now over 30 feet tall and need trimming to clear a power line.

"Allergic to Christmas"

A decorated evergreen tree is an American Christmas tradition. The Christmas tree goes beyond its symbolic role - it is the centerpiece of most families’ seasonal gathering.

Oh, the Tannenbaum (German for “tree”) is also highly political.

The White House, where First Lady Michelle Obama, accompanied by the sounds of "O Christmas Tree," performed by the U.S. Marine Corps Band, turned out to welcome the White House Tree, a 19-foot, half-ton Frasier Fir destined for a presidential lighting ceremony in the Blue Room. Members of the National Christmas Tree Association, a real-tree growers group, have donated the official White House Christmas Tree for display in the Blue Room every year since 1966. Not to be outdone, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi presided over the lighting of the Capitol Hill Tree, another media event with live brass band (same song) and considerable media fanfare. But these are small change compared to the real action, over at Rockefeller Center (New York), where the yuletide Norway Spruce is required to be a minimum of 65 feet tall.

With Thanksgiving behind us, many families don outdoor gear, and armed with heavy implements, march bravely into the cold mountain woods, for a tree-cutting adventure. Children and dogs love choosing and chopping the perfect tree, even if it actually stands in their neighbor's back yard, or suburban fringe cut-your-own-tree Christmas tree farm. Despite some national forest permit cutting, almost every tree comes from a farm. Or maybe just a Christmas tree store set up in the forecourt of an abandoned gas station. "It wouldn't be Christmas Without a Tree"

So those who find themselves allergic to Christmas trees are up against an institution, and an industry to defend it.

The Christmas Tree Industry

With trade associations, marketing and lobbying groups, and competing industry propaganda, wars between growers of "real" trees and manufacturers of artificial substitutes thrive. The amazing persistence of the tree-is-Christmas concept is due in large part to marketing efforts from a wide variety of participants.

Despite the global financial crisis and weak economy dating back to 2008, sales of real Christmas trees remained strong in all but the most over-leveraged housing markets. Surveys show people trimming gift purchases, but still trimming the tree.

Historically, tree farms were mom-n-pop operations on marginal agricultural land. Many hobby farms and retirement projects supplied manually harvested trees to local buyers. But today big box retail chains including Home Depot, Wal-Mart Stores, and Lowe’s increasingly dominate this retail space. So the growers have evolved into an industrial agribusiness - half a billion trees are currently standing in U.S. on tree farms - with the former small time operators dropping out. Contrary to industry assertions, these are farms, not forests. Real forests have biological diversity - tree farms are monoculture. Agribusiness trees are fertilized; sprayed with pesticides, fungicides, and needle retention chemicals. Hypoallergenic it's not. On 22,000 farms totaling around 450,000 dedicated acres, the harvest season is very short, requiring higher tech industrial ag methods to turn profits. In some modern tree farms, helicopters lift bundles of trees, rushing them to waiting bailers and conveyors which rapidly load a queue of waiting semi-trailers. Helicopters Harvest Christmas Trees

Christmas Tree Allergy

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Although "Christmas tree allergy" is not new to the medical profession, exact causes have proved hard to identify. After all, these trees are dead, despite their ability to soak up gallons of water. The typical natural tree is full of dead needles, trapped dead leaves from other types of trees, tiny insects, their eggs and larvae, pollen, dust, mold, assorted agri-chemical residues, dyes, and needle retention chemicals. Dragging them in and out, and erecting /decorating, will shake loose many of these allergens. Key suspects in the scientific search for a causal agent are pollens, molds, and tree resins responsible for that "fresh pine scent."

Pollen?

Initially attention was focused on the tree's pollen since pollen allergies are so common. However, evergreen pollens have waxy outer coats and are considered unlikely allergens. A real tree itself is unlikely to produce pollen during December. Outdoors for years in the field, a Christmas tree can collect pollens, dust, mold or other allergens. Pollen from Christmas trees is normally not a big problem for allergy sufferers since the pines and firs found at most Christmas tree lots pollinate in the spring; whereas, mountain cedar trees pollinate in late November and early December.

Fresh Pine Scent

Ahhh, that new tree smell, trees with strong aromas are very popular. Many people say the best part — that rich, unmistakable pine fragrance would permeate the rooms. With that smell, the atmosphere shifted. So many natural tree aficionados mention their love for the smell - it is the dominant theme of the real-trees-are-better group.

Generally, trees, and particularly evergreens, have to defend themselves against browsing animals because in the winter, they are the only greenery around. The Douglas fir and the Concolor fir do this with their smell and taste, which the deer generally find unpleasant. Hike in a forest where elk or deer winter, there you will find Aspens with their bark chewed off right at the level of each years' highest snow level. Evergreens nearby will be untouched.

Aromatic resins, natural tree resins, that fresh pine scent, as possible Oleoresins of the tree balsam are thought to be the most likely cause of the symptoms designated as Christmas tree allergy. Christmas trees emit terpenes, smelly compounds that can irritate airways. Every species has a different chemical composition of the pitch contained in the foliage, and the pitch is what produces aroma. New research, however, indicates the real culprits are oleoresins produced by the tree itself. Ironically, it is these same oleoresins that give Christmas trees their pleasant Christmas smell.

Not a Creature was Stirring, Except for the Mold

Fifteen percent of Americans are allergic to mold. Mold allergy symptoms include nasal, eye, and throat irritation; nasal stuffiness; and headache. Additionally, there is a well-documented link between asthma attacks and molds.

"As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly.”

Following reports of newly set up Christmas trees, worsening allergy symptoms, a small Christmas tree allergy study was conducted (which has been criticized by Christmas tree growers and some scientists). Looking at a single tree, in one home, major evidence for the mold hypothesis is propagated widely across the web and popular print media. Despite the flaws and limited scope of the evidence, my experience with mold allergy tends to support the Christmas tree mold theory as a core concept. Trees have a certain amount of mold on them. Because it is cold, maybe below freezing, the mold lies dormant. Outside, the problem doesn't immediately make itself evident. Bring them indoors, put them next to a warm heating vent, mold spores release, and, you have a risk of invasive fungal disease among people with compromised immune systems.

Time

People who suffer from mold allergies may want to limit the amount of time a Christmas tree is kept indoors (less than two weeks). Life span of a fresh tree varies depending on room temperatures, water availability and species. Mold count from a live Christmas tree could rise to five times the normal level two weeks after the tree is brought indoors. Most Christmas trees are cut and bundled well in advance of the holidays, bundled up in netting, twine, or wire, and stored in a moist environment before being placed on a lot for sale, cut and stored in October. 84% of pre-cut Christmas trees are wrapped and shipped hundreds of miles from tree growing regions on flatbed semi-trucks. Farmers with contracts for the big retail stores start harvesting early because of the number of trees they must produce, meaning some trees are cut as early as September. A dead tree begins decaying shortly after it is cut. Big rush hits a week after Thanksgiving. Most cut-your-own-tree operations, accounting for 16% of trees harvested, expect to be sold out ten days before Christmas. The longer you have the tree in your house, the worse it gets as well. "Don't take it down until it's brown".

Popular Tree Varieties

So your significant other relentlessly demands a formerly live tree. What are the options in a "real" Christmas-tree?

A third still put up and decorate a real tree, vacuuming pine needles into March.

Mean sales price in 2016 was $51. Prices for live Christmas trees have actually been coming down because of a glut on the market and the growing market share of artificial arboreal decoration. Many marginal producers, mostly hobby and retirement projects, are closing.

Slender, tall, good-smelling, good needle retention and branches that are sufficiently strong to carry ornaments, are key ingredients. The top selling Christmas Trees are: balsam fir, Douglas-fir, Fraser fir, Noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia and White pine.

Balsam fir: This fir has soft, dark green foliage with short flattened needles about ¾ inch long and has a strong distinctive "balsam" aroma. It has sturdy branching and excellent needle retention.

Douglas fir: This hardy "blue" fir has lush, blue-green foliage with needles about 1 inch long and is very attractive. Its sturdy branching and outstanding needle retention make this a holiday favorite.

Fraser fir: This fir, also known as "Southern balsam," has soft emerald-green needles with silvery undersides, about ¾ inch long. It has a bottle-brush texture, sturdy branching and outstanding needle retention. Dark blue-green Fraser fir is usually mentioned as the most popular tree.

Noble fir: This fir, also called “red” fir, is a high altitude tree grown along the Pacific NW. Tall, long-columnar trunk. Bark is smooth and grey grown. Needles over 1 inch long, blue-ish green and appears silver on the underside. Growth comes in aggressively after a fire. Largest native fir in North America.

Scotch pine: This conifer has sharp blue-green foliage with needles about 2-3 inches in length. It can be sheared to an appealing density. It has a conical shape, excellent color and needle retention.

Virginia pine: This pine is small-to-medium sized. Most popular in the south, it adorns stout, woody branches. Its short, yellow-green needles come in pairs, twisted and 1.5 to 3 inches in length. Grows in poor soil but responds well to trimming.

White pine: This tree has soft, lacy, blue-green foliage with needles about 3-4 inches in length. A very graceful-looking evergreen with excellent needle retention. White pine is also less fragrant than the other varieties of tree and therefore is better for people with outdoor allergies.

Other most notable trees include:

Canaan fir: This tree is a genetic variation of traditional balsam fir. Although its foliage can often retain the bottle brush appearance, its needles tend to be longer, about 1 inch, and vary more in color.

Norway spruce: This tree has shiny, dark-green foliage with needles about ½ inch long. The rich foliage of this spruce can exhibit good needle retention with proper care. Norway spruce is the original Christmas tree. However, it is a bit fragile. When it decides to drop its needles, it drops virtually all of them overnight. Consequently, you will not find this tree in tree lots. When you cut it and put it in water, within six to eight hours, it will generally do fine and last for up to four, even five weeks.

Colorado blue spruce: This spruce has stout, three-sided needles about ¾ inch in length. Its foliage can vary in color from dark green to indigo blue. It has sturdy branching and good needle retention. Colorado blue spruce is more hardy. It has the sturdiest branches of all the trees on the farm. It is generally a very dense tree with very prickly needles. Blue spruce have sharper needles. I think it is the most beautiful tree you can have as a Christmas tree, but recommend people wear gloves when trimming the tree. It is probably not a tree you want to buy if you have toddlers who might grab hold of the branches. They won't draw blood, but they sure will hurt.

Serbian spruce: This spruce is becoming more common due to its good needle retention. Flattened needles are about ½ inch in length, with foliage that is dark blue-green above and blue-white below.

All fresh Christmas trees will smell great, but the Douglas fir takes the prize. It has a distinct lemony smell. You readily recognize it when you take a few needles and squeeze them between your nails and hold them close to your nose.

The National Christmas Tree Association says the Virginia pine is favored in the South and the Leyland cypress in the Southeast United States.

Best Trees for the Allergic

Concolor "white" fir has fewer allergic reactions claimed. This evergreen has soft, silvery-blue foliage with flattened needles about 2 to 3 inches long and a distinctive citrus aroma. Color is outstanding and excellent needle retention. Citrus-like smell, like the Douglas fir, and promises to be a great Christmas tree.

Give Leyland Cypress a try. This coniferous evergreen is a hybrid combination of the Alaskan Cedar and Monterrey Cypress from Mexico. Because it's a true hybrid, the Leyland cannot produce pollen.

Since Leyland cypress emits only limited quantities of oleoresins, they produce very little odor. Slender, fast growing and shallow rooted.

Some Christmas tree dealers will have “shakers” that not only shake off the loose needles, but also the dust and mold on the tree.

Cut-Your-Own

Freshness is important, and if you are cutting your own tree, you know it will be fresh.

Selecting a healthy tree is critical. Don't purchase a tree that is losing green needles or has dry brittle twigs or a sour musty smell. Needles should be resilient and slip through your fingers. Needles should adhere to the branches and not fall off in your hand. They should be flexible, not brittle.

Fresh trees use about one quart of water per day per inch of trunk diameter. The stand should hold enough water to last at least 24 hours. Do not use additives of any kind in the water.

Living Christmas Tree

Many nurseries can provide living Christmas trees in containers. These are a bit more expensive but can add to a home's landscaping.

Trees kept healthy can be planted outdoors when the holiday season is over, see videos;

Sustainable Xmas Tree Video

Replanting a Live Christmas Tree Video

Artificial Trees: Paper or Plastic?

Average cost is $50 for a real tree. In some areas, or for a larger, lusher tree, you'll see trees prices well above $100.

Artificial trees cost more initially, $100 on average, but over time you save. Almost half of U.S. households now use an artificial tree, with an accelerating sales growth relative to live trees. Naturally this industry has its own lobbying efforts, with counter-propaganda contradicting the real-tree groups, and publishing videos of dry trees bursting into flames. Artificial trees offer certain things that real trees simply can't - namely, longevity, cleanliness and, in some cases, safety. Fake trees never die, so you can put them up on Thanksgiving and leave through New Year's, with the lights already on it. Artificial Christmas trees are recommended for people with mold allergies, but even artificial trees can aggravate allergies. Artificial trees tend to collect dust and mold since they're in storage for most of the year.

Little jars marked "Tree Scent”. Many people are also allergic to pine scented aerosol sprays used to add aroma to artificial trees.

China is the leading producer of artificial trees - toxins? lead?

If you have an artificial tree, store it in a cool, dry place, and wipe it down or wash it before putting it up.

How about silk trees?

Fiber-optic (aluminum) Christmas trees. Store in airtight plastic bag and keep in a cool dry place (as opposed to a damp basement).

Then there are those who opt to construct their own "tree," a couple of impressive projects have been constructed of stacked beer bottles with lights inside.

Ceramic or glass Christmas tree ornaments could be used although these would be quite small but are an alternative.

Lastly, fake holiday trees are not environmentally friendly. Most are made in China from petroleum-based PVC and are not biodegradable, so they will sit in landfills for decades.

Artificial Snow

You’ll be doin all right, with your Christmas of white…..

Spraying artificial snow on your Christmas tree, or windows, can irritate lungs if you inhale.

Ornaments: Deck the Halls with (Boughs of Holly)

Tree ornaments. Decorations stored for the past year in a damp basement harbor molds, dust mites and other allergens. Unpacking the Christmas boxes stirs up dust and transfers allergens to the hands and the respiratory system. Dried flowers, cranberries and probably old strung popcorn can foster mold and grow a multitude of bacteria. Same goes for natural garlands or wreaths.

Allergy Prevention: Dirty Laundry

Bounce the tree's trunk on the driveway or some other firm surface outside. If below freezing, use a leaf blower to get rid of most of the mold spores before taking it indoors or take it for a ride on the roof of the car. Above freezing, for a live Christmas tree, hose it off with a lot of water and allow it to dry completely on an enclosed porch or garage. Wipe clean and dry completely. Warmer climates, consider spraying thoroughly with Veggie Wash (a natural fruit and vegetable cleaner made of citrus, corn and coconut). Then, let it soak-in for five minutes before spraying it off. After washing, shake the tree and let it dry out for a week.

Before decorating, vacuum artificial Christmas trees and ornaments, outside. They can gather mold and dust in storage.

People with mold sensitivity should keep a live Christmas tree in the house for only four to seven days.

Christmas-themed soft toys or felt stockings, put them in the freezer overnight before use to kill dust mites.

Put MERV-12+ filters on furnaces to remove mold particles from circulating air and use a room air cleaner near the tree.

Mold growth can be slowed down, by keeping humidity below 40 percent, using a dehumidifier.

Perhaps the best way to avoid allergens from a Christmas tree is employ a quality air purifier, which will rid the air of pollen, mold, dust, and chemicals.

If you aren’t going to give up your tree at the very LEAST get a very good air cleaner!

Go Treeless: NO, Tannenbaum

Twenty percent do not include a tree in their holiday observances. Though ornaments have traditionally been used with Christmas trees, they can be hung from any place in the house. String them with lights to dress up a window or hang them outside. Consider hanging lights around the perimeter of your family room. Christians could substitute a non-allergenic nativity as the centerpiece of Christmas.

Disposal: Twelve Days of Christmas

Many reasons to opt out of the Christmas tree tradition is fire hazard. Approximately indoor 250 tree fires occur every holiday season in the U.S. A well hydrated real tree is also fireproof. Most Christmas tree fires don't start because of dry trees, but because of overloaded light circuits.

Now comes the annual disposal nightmare, with abandoned Christmas trees appearing overnight. There are more than 4,000 Christmas tree recycling programs throughout the United States. But recycling is done on a very local level. It's not uncommon for each county or even township/municipality to have their own recycling program.

Landfills are already working overtime to process the five million extra tons of garbage generated in the annual year-end rituals. Trees contaminated with hard-to-remove tinsel, or with tree stands still attached, cannot be recycled cost effectively, often making their way to a landfill. Costs of these programs have cash-strapped local governments searching for alternative strategies; mulch, wildlife habitat, underwater fish attractors. I think these recycled tree skeletons have a bright future as petroleum alternatives - one paper mill in Wisconsin grinds them up for use as boiler fuel.

Blue Christmas

Note that I have not blamed the tree for all the maladies which surround the holiday season.

Charlie Brown was right to lament the commercialization and seek the true meaning of Christmas. Everyone knows the pathetic tree he got.

No trees were harmed in the construction of this web page.

We wish you a Merry Healthy Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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