December 9, 2011
RALEIGH, N.C. — If the holidays are truly a time for peace on earth and goodwill toward all, someone forgot to tell the Christmas tree people.
For these holiday antagonists, there can be no yule truce: It’s either a natural tree grown at a farm or an artificial model that lasts year after year.
Choose wisely, each side says, because the other option can be downright dangerous, carrying risks for allergies, environmental damage and even lead.
The best choice, of course, depends on whom you ask
“Misinformation is the biggest competition,” said Rick Dungey, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents growers of natural trees. “People think a lot of weird things about trees. … They think they’re allergic to them, or they’re going to burst into flames or they’re a hassle.”
Thomas Harman, the founder and chief executive officer of Redwood City, Calif.-based Balsam Hill, a manufacturer of artificial trees, agreed there is plenty of misinformation. He blames much of that on the natural tree group.
“There is a perception among the National Christmas Tree Association that artificial trees are stealing their business,” said Harman, who is also president of the American Christmas Tree Association. “Whether or not that’s really true or Christmas tree use per capita has declined, they’ve historically put out a bunch of content about artificial trees that isn’t true.”
It’s a dispute that has remained bitter even as the market for all Christmas trees, natural and artificial, has slumped since the start of the Great Recession in December 2007. That year, the National Christmas Tree Association reports that Americans bought 31.3 million natural trees and 17.4 million artificial trees. By 2010, the group said the number of natural trees sold had dropped to 27 million, and the number of artificial trees had more than halved, to 8.2 million.
The American Christmas Tree Association, formed in 2008, disputes those figures, saying artificial tree sales average 10 million to 11 million a year.
ACTA won’t reveal membership numbers but said members include merchants who sell both real and artificial trees. Harman said the organization supports both kinds of trees, but the group’s website is slanted to artificial ones.
In an effort to reverse the sales slump, the National Christmas Tree Association asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve a 15-cent fee on each tree sold to raise money for natural tree promotion efforts. The USDA backed the fee but delayed the move after criticism by conservative critics, who accused President Barack Obama of taxing Christmas trees.
In the great debate over natural or artificial trees, it’s easy to find people with strong views on each side.
Katie Dow, a 44-year-old photographer from Raleigh, N.C., doesn’t disguise her disdain for artificial trees like the one her mother would decorate at their home in Bradford, N.H.
“It never looked right,” she said. “It made me nauseous.”
For her first Christmas after she graduated from college, Dow bought a natural tree, and her friends bought ornaments for her. One year, her mother wanted her to put up the artificial tree for a Christmas Eve dinner. Dow refused.
“I literally took the tree I had decorated, put it in the Jeep — decorations and all — and put it in the living room for the party,” Dow said.
Chris O’Donnell was a live tree person all his life — until he lost his job the day after Thanksgiving 2010 and a friend loaned him an artificial tree.
“I was one of those live-trees-til-death people,” said O’Donnell, 44, of Fredricksburg, Va.
The loaned artificial tree changed all that.
“Once we had a fake tree in the house and I didn’t have to clean up needles and I didn’t have to climb under it twice a day to water it, I kind of wondered why I ever bothered with the real ones,” he said.
O’Donnell is now the director of sales for a technology company. He recently paid $110 for a 7-foot artificial tree.
“I guess if we miss the pine smell, we can buy some candles,” he said.
To draw people to their sides, both tree associations make claims about the safety of the other products, with topics including allergies and lead dangers. The NCTA points to the artificial trees that end up in the landfill, while real trees can be recycled, for example. The ACTA published a study on its website this month that concluded either kind of tree has a negligible impact on the environment.
Safety-testing company Underwriters Laboratories Inc. said fire is the biggest threat, not the possibility that artificial trees contain lead. The company notes that natural and some artificial trees can burn up in as little as a minute.
“That’s why we test for fire,” said John Drengenberg, UL’s director of consumer safety. “It has not been for lead.”
In 2004, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Asheville concluded that an average artificial tree doesn’t present a significant risk for exposure to lead. They did warn, however, that a significant health risk to young children is possible in worst-case scenarios.
And they noted that some tree lights also contain lead.
Some also claim one tree or the other is worse for causing sneezing or sniffles, but allergists are divided on which is worse.
Dr. Neeta Ogden, an allergist in Englewood, N.J., blames artificial for the worst problems.
“The main reason is that people store them in their homes in the basement and attic, and those are places where they’re going to attract dust and mold,” Ogden said.
But Dr. Neil Kao, an allergist in Greenville, S.C., recommends artificial trees to his patients. Both can accumulate dust, but Kao also counts the tree aroma and the water that sits in the stand as negatives for the natural tree.
For patients with severe asthma and sinus problems, he recommends a poster of a tree. “It’s not very touchy-feely, but it serves the purpose.”