Are Christmas Trees Sprayed with Pesticides?

#EcoAdvice from our expert

Nathan Donley
Center for Biological Diversity
6 min readNov 25, 2019

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Dear Dr. Donley,

Every year my family gets a Christmas tree from the lot near our house. But lately I’ve heard that these trees are sprayed with pesticides. I’m wondering: Is it true that pesticides are used on Christmas trees? And if so, are they dangerous?

Signed,

Pine-ing for an answer I will never Fir-get

Dear Pine-ing,

When you hear that I don’t own a nativity scene, that my siblings stopped getting each other gifts a while ago, and that I think eggnog is the most disgusting thing on Earth, you might think you’ve asked for Christmas advice from a total scrooge. But I LOVE Christmas! It doesn’t get much better than being with loved ones and sharing great food in a warm house when it’s cold outside. And for me, as with your family, that tradition has always included a fresh-cut tree.

Sadly many Christmas trees are heavily sprayed with pesticides, as is typical with most nursery plants. And yes, you should be concerned about the chemicals that are being used.

The most recent data we’ve got are from a USDA survey of Christmas tree growers in six states (Oregon, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, Florida and Texas, accounting for 63 percent of Christmas trees produced in the United States) on their pesticide-use patterns back in 2009. From this we know that Christmas trees in these six states are sprayed with 270,000 pounds of pesticides each year. And it’s not just the quantity of pesticides used that’s concerning, but also the type. Eighty-five percent of the use is made up of eight pesticides: chlorothalonil, atrazine, simazine, glyphosate, hexazinone, carbaryl, chlorpyrifos and dimethoate.

They don’t roll trippingly off the tongue, like the names of Santa’s eight reindeer, but unfortunately this is a laundry list of some of the worst pesticides still allowed for use in the United States. The EPA has designated chlorothalonil and carbaryl to be “likely” carcinogens, and the World Health Organization has made a similar finding for glyphosate. Atrazine and simazine are known endocrine disruptors, linked to birth defects and kidney disease in people, and even miniscule doses can harm amphibians like frogs and salamanders.

Chlorpyrifos and dimethoate are organophosphates — a class of chemicals that have been used as nerve agents during warfare. They are linked to cognitive delay and attention deficit disorder in small children and are extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Chlorpyrifos alone was recently found to jeopardize the continued existence of more than 1,400 endangered U.S. species. The sheer harm that these pesticides can inflict on ourselves and our natural world cannot be overstated.

It’s unclear how much pesticide residue remains on the tree once it makes its way into your home, but the harms to the people and places where these pesticides are sprayed is a serious concern. Most Christmas tree farms rely on farmworker labor, and many of these workers have little choice but to be exposed to high levels of these pesticides and suffer the health consequences often with minimal access to health care.

And here’s just one example of the environmental harms: Seven of the eight pesticides mentioned above have been detected in the Clackamas River watershed in Oregon, which contains essential habitat for endangered steelhead, Chinook and coho salmon (Clackamas County happens to be the 2nd largest Christmas tree producing county in the United States).

Atrazine, simazine and hexazinone were even detected in finished drinking water drawn from water sources in this region. Clackamas and 12 other counties in Oregon have even been given special approval to dump chlorpyrifos by a helicopter over Christmas tree farms. While there are other agricultural uses of these pesticides in this watershed, Christmas tree spraying is certainly a seasonal contributor to this widespread environmental contamination.

So what are you supposed to do with this information? An extreme answer may be to erect an unadorned aluminum pole in your living room and start celebrating Festivus. But for most, the right answer will likely depend on where you live and your level of attachment to past traditions.

What’s clear is that the last thing you should do is go out and buy a new plastic tree. That is by far the worse choice for your health and the environment.

There are some tree farms that are certified organic and others that simply don’t spray pesticides, both of which are a really great option and one that I recommend. And if you’re handy, you might enjoy making your own tree out of reclaimed wood or other materials lying around the house — there are a ton of great ideas online.

But, to be clear, it should not be up to you to have to worry through every buying decision you want to make and seek advice from some charming scientist online — everyone should be assured that products that are available to buy are produced ethically and sustainably. That can only happen with a major change to the broken pesticide regulatory system in our country that allows these dangerous pesticides to be used on Christmas trees, the cranberries in that sauce that only your grandparents eat, and even the cotton in Santa’s beard.

I, personally, have found it very hard to change my tradition of buying a perfectly shaped tree at the nearby lot. I have such fond memories of picking out a tree with my father and going back to decorate it with my family — and it’s given me a strong, emotional desire to do it with my son.

But, at the same time, there‘s value in starting new traditions. Last year we decided to get a living tree. It was only two feet tall but still filled our house with that lovely tree smell. After last Christmas I planted it in the ground (in its pot) to keep the roots from freezing. All I have to do is dig it back up and I get a free tree this year! I’m hoping to repot it and keep this up as long as I can before ultimately giving it a forever home in our yard. Then I’ll just start the process over.

Stay wild,

Dr. Donley, aka Rebel Without a Claus

Dr. Nathan Donley is a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity who answers questions about how environmental toxins affect people, wildlife and the environment. Send him your questions at AskDrDonley@biologicaldiversity.org

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Nathan Donley
Center for Biological Diversity

Senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, former cancer researcher at Oregon Health and Sciences University