Halloween is right around the corner, and we are starting to see more and more cobwebs gathering in corners and spread across railings, jack-o’-lanterns standing sentry on the porch, and children young and old transforming into witches, ghosts, superheroes and monsters. As the leaves change color and the scent of pumpkin spice fills the air, Halloween plans begin to form.
Everyone wants Halloween to be a fun, safe holiday for children, but some traditional Halloween items can pose a special hazard, especially to those with allergies and asthma. A little fear can be fun when it involves things that go bump in the night, but when it comes to the health of you and your children, it is best not to take any chances. How safe are your Halloween costumes and decorations? How can you tell which Halloween items can house hidden dangers?
During October, it becomes especially hard to resist the delightfully orange pumpkin stands that spring up in stray corners of your normal commute. Families across America visit pumpkin patches and pick out their favorites to bring home and carve. However, when treated improperly, these pumpkins could bring harmful pollutants into your home.
It is no secret that pumpkins are perishable, whether they are carved or not. Anyone that has left a pumpkin on the porch for too long can attest to how easily these festive gourds can turn into breeding grounds for mold, bacteria and insects.
Mold can grow quickly in warm, damp environments, creating spores that are released into the air. The spores that are released from moldy pumpkins can cause unpleasant respiratory symptoms in some people—especially those with asthma and allergies—that can include a runny nose, headaches, itchy or watery eyes, sneezing and skin rashes.
If you hate the idea of celebrating Halloween without a pumpkin or two, here are some tips to decorate your home while keeping it free from mold and unwanted pests:
- When carving a pumpkin, make sure to clear the pulp and seeds from the inside completely.
- Keep carved pumpkins outside whenever possible. If you need to bring your pumpkin inside, seal it in a plastic bag and store it somewhere cold, like the refrigerator.
- Use a bleach-based cleaning solution on the outside, inside and cut edges of your pumpkin to help prevent mold growth. However, make sure to only use the cleaning solution outside or in a well-ventilated area. Never mix bleach with anything other than water.
Note:Bales of hay and piles of fallen leaves can also be potential sources of mold during the fall months.
2. Plastic decorations
What is Halloween without a few hanging bats, plastic skeletons and hidden creepy crawlies? Who doesn’t love the classic hand-sticking-out-of-the-candy-bowl? Unfortunately, the effects of chemical off-gassing can make these plastic decorations even spookier than you may think.
Sometimes the manufacturing process can trap harmful gases within certain products. Off-gassing is a term used to describe what happens when the product releases these harmful gases into the air. According to a 2018 University of Plymouth study, products made with black plastic—like many Halloween decorations—can pose greater health hazards than other plastic products. Many black plastic products are made with recycled materials that can contain harmful chemicals such as bromine, antimony and lead (Turner, 2018).
Fortunately, there is an abundance of non-plastic options on the market to help you get in the Halloween spirit! Try using orange and red flowers, wreaths, colorful lights and paper or cloth banners to help add the right amount of spooky fun to your home. Your local thrift store can also be a great source of unique decorations. As a plus, secondhand decor items have typically already gone through their worst off-gassing stage.
3. Scented candles
There is nothing like a pumpkin spice candle to get you in the mood for autumn, and everyone knows that a jack-o’-lantern is not complete without a flickering light behind its eyes. Candles, especially ones with fall scents, are one of the most popular products that people use to celebrate the Halloween season, but they may be filling your home with more than just the aroma of fall.
Many decorative candles—especially cheaper ones—contain a type of wax called paraffin and release harmful pollutants into the air when burned. These pollutants include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that, when inhaled, can cause health effects such as:
- Eye, nose or throat irritation
Fortunately, this does not mean that you have to go without your favorite fall scents! The study found that vegetable-based candles, such as soy candles, did not produce the same harmful chemicals when burned. As for the jack-o’-lanterns, battery-operated flameless candles are definitely a safer option.
4. Halloween costumes
Helping your little ones find the perfect costume can be one of the best parts of Halloween. Whether they wish to dress up as a scary monster, a fairy princess or a character from their favorite show, you can probably find a pre-made costume that fits your child’s vision. However, most of these costumes are mass-produced and stored in plastic bags until you take them home, meaning that the off-gassing process cannot begin until you take the costume out of its packaging.
One study found that many children’s Halloween costumes and accessories can contain harmful pollutants including:
- Flame retardants—Because of the Flammable Fabrics Act, many children’s costumes now contain flame retardants. Flame retardants are endocrine and thyroid disruptors and can have a negative effect on the immune system. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, children are especially vulnerable to the harmful health impacts of flame retardants because their bodies are still developing.
- Phthalates—Phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastic and vinyl and make it more flexible. The National Institute of Health recommends avoiding phthalates whenever possible and keeping children away from plastic or vinyl products that may contain phthalates.
To find the safest costume choices for your child, try to avoid costumes made with plastic or vinyl, as well as those marked “flame retardant.” You can also try making a costume out of clothing and items found around your house or at a local thrift store.
Note:If you plan on using clothing or costume accessories that have been stored in the attic or basement, you should wash them or air them out thoroughly before putting them on. They may contain dust, mold or dust mite waste that can trigger allergy and asthma symptoms.
5. Colorful makeup and face paints
How can you be a zombie without creepy green-gray skin? Or a vampire without blood dripping from your fangs? Many of the most popular—and most fun—Halloween costumes require a thick coat of makeup or face paint in colors that you probably do not already have laying around the house.
When you need outrageous makeup colors that you will probably never use again, it can be tempting to snag one of the inexpensive makeup sets that you find in the Halloween aisle of any major store. However, the savings are probably not worth the health risks that can accompany these low-cost products.
A 2016 report found trace amounts of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic in 21 of the 48 children’s face paints tested. Additionally, 20% of the 39 children’s makeup items tested were found to contain at least one VOC.
Whether your little one wants to be a clown, a zombie, a skeleton or some combination of the three, it is probably best to stick to traditional beauty products that have been dermatologist tested. Additionally, if you are feeling like a bit of a mad scientist, you can try making homemade non-toxic face paint with water, vegetable oil, flour and natural coloring.
Breathe more easily this Halloween
There are many things that can make Halloween scary, but toxic pollutants should not be one of them.
To protect you and your children from off-gassing this Halloween season:
- Try to let new costumes, accessories and decor items air out before you start using them.
- Make sure that you are in a well-ventilated area when you are applying make-up or hair sprays.
Some other ways to help avoid respiratory problems this Halloween may include:
- The American College of Asthma, Allergy & Immunology (ACAAI) advises packing an inhaler according to your child’s doctor’s instructions, as well as an extra sweater or scarf in case the cold weather starts aggravating asthma symptoms.
- Before you go out, check the outdoor air quality in your area on www.airnow.gov. You may need to adjust or shorten your trick-or-treating plans if the outdoor air quality is especially poor.
While some of the above sources of air pollution may have surprised you, they do not need to keep you from fully enjoying this Halloween season. With a little thoughtfulness and creativity, you will find no shortage of fun, safe ways to get into the Halloween spirit. Have fun and stay safe!
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Moldy Jack-o-lanterns and pumpkins
These are the pumpkins you've been enjoying for a few weeks that have visible signs of mold and rot on them. The best thing you can do is compost moldy jack-o-lanterns and pumpkins. They're already past their prime for any other use.