Question of the Week
December 9, 2013
What is the Toxicity of Common Holiday Hazards?
Despite the common belief of toxicity, the Poinsettia is not a poisonous plant. Poinsettia leaf ingestion should not cause any symptoms. Playing with the leaves or rubbing the eyes after handling the plant may lead to local irritation. Case reports of GI upset from Poinsettia ingestion generally involve animal cases or very large ingestions.
The Christmas Cactus is non-poisonous.
The berries of American holly are considered low toxicity. Ingestion of <5 berries should not produce any symptoms. Ingestion of >5 berries may produce GI upset or mild drowsiness.
Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant and there are European and North American varieties. Certain varieties contain substances that may cause cardiotoxicity and seizures, particularly after drinking a tea made from the plant. The most common type distributed for re-sale in the United States is the North American variety, the Phoradendron species. After ingestion, this variety is most commonly associated with GI upset. TPC recommends wrapping fresh mistletoe in a fine netting before hanging it in the home. This prevents leaves and berries from dropping to the ground and being ingested by young children. Ingestion of >3 berries or >2 leaves could result in symptoms.
Christmas trees, etc.
Christmas trees such as cedar, fir, and other popular evergreens are non-toxic. All may cause dermal irritation or mechanical injury if ingested.
Christmas tree preservatives – like other cut plant or flower preservatives, these substances are added to the water to prolong freshness of the tree. The primary ingredient is dextrose and they may contain VERY small quantities of fertilizers, potassium, magnesium, or fungicides. All are considered non-toxic.
Spray snow (flocking) – non toxic when dried. The propellant contains a fluorinated hydrocarbon and methylene chloride. The main risk is from intentional abuse of the product via “huffing”.
Christmas ornaments – an acute lick or taste of a painted ornament is not toxic even if the type of paint is unknown. Many are made of thin metal, plastic, wood or glass and could cause a cut to the mouth or choking if ingested.
Christmas lights – most lights would only present a risk from the glass if a child bit into one. Bubbling Christmas lights contain methylene chloride. Methylene chloride is a skin irritant and if absorbed, it is metabolized to carbon monoxide. The amount of methylene chloride in each light is typically <5ml and children are unlikely to ingest enough liquid to cause toxicity.
Silver Balls – commonly used on cakes and Christmas cookies as decoration. The container lists in small print that these are not to be ingested. The balls are coated with elemental silver. Toxicity is not expected with typical ingestions.
Be careful with the alcoholic beverages when there are young children in the house. While children tend not to imbibe the “fully loaded” eggnog, other alcoholic beverages may have a pleasing taste to children. Cups that are left around the house after a holiday party are culprits for children who don’t understand that the cup has an “adult” drink. Ethanol is a risk to children for not only causing intoxication but also causing profound hypoglycemia. An ounce or shotglass of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
This question prepared by: TPC Toxicologists