‘Tis the Season — Christmas Trees and Indoor Air Quality

Can a Christmas tree bring on an asthma attack?

The answer is yes — a live one can.  Live Christmas trees can carry pathogenic mold spores that proliferate rapidly in the cozy warmth of your living room.  One study showed that indoor mold counts went from 800 to 5,000 spores per cubic meter by the fourteenth day a Christmas tree had been kept indoors.  In terms of indoor air quality, this amounts to an explosion of mold growth — especially when you consider that the average healthy home tests at 600 mold spores per cubic meter.

The study was initiated by researchers John Santilli, M.D. of St. Vincent Medical Center in Connecticut and Rebecca Gruchalla, M.D. of University of Texas.  According to Dr. Santilli, the study was prompted by the observation that his patients’ sinus and asthma complaints increased dramatically during the holiday season.

In another study,  Dr. Lawrence Kurlandsky of SUNY’s Upstate Medical University analyzed the needles and bark of 28 Christmas trees for the presence of mold and found 53 species on 70% of the trees.

We had our own dramatic experience with a live Christmas tree when our son was two years old.  One day shortly after Christmas he suddenly started wheezing and having difficulty breathing.  In a panic we brought him into an allergist and learned that he was allergic to the mold from our live Christmas tree.  When the tree came down, his asthmatic symptoms vanished.

People with sensitivity to certain molds may comprise up to 15% of the population, according to Dr. Santilli.  The symptoms can range from nasal, eye and throat irritation to nasal stuffiness to headaches, asthma attacks, and fatigue.  The most severe reactions occur among those with compromised immunity and can include invasive fungal disease.

Dr. Santilli recommended that anyone with mold allergies take down their Christmas tree after a few days or even sooner if symptoms have flared up.  Dr. Kurlandsky also suggested that people with mold sensitivity run an air purifier in the room with the tree.  Hosing down a live tree before bringing it into the house can eliminate some of the mold exposure as well.

The other solution, though not as popular, is extremely effective — use an artificial tree instead.

Source:  The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Annual Scientific Meeting, Dallas, Nov. 8-14, 2007. Rebecca Gruchalla, MD, Chief of Allergy Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. John Santilli, MD, Chief, Division of Allergy and Immunology, St. Vincent Medical Center, Bridgeport, Conn.

Kurlandsky L.E. Identification of mold on seasonal indoor coniferous trees. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. 2011; 106: 543-544.

Brian Bussey is the Senior Industrial Hygienist of Bussey Environmental Inc., an environmental consulting firm located in Evanston, Illinois.  Bussey Environmental has been serving the North Shore and Chicago Metro area since 1998.  A native of the North Shore, Brian has 23 years of experience in the environmental industry.  Bussey Environmental Inc., 1604 Chicago Avenue, Suite 11, Evanston, IL 60201.  Ph:  847.492.1465   Fax:  847.492.1466