The Checkout

Daddy, Why Is the Tree on Fire?

Every year, many consumers are alarmed when they buy holiday lights and see a warning label telling them the wire coating and cords contain lead. Holiday lights have had lead for awhile. The difference now is California's Proposition 65 requires any products sold in the state that contain cancer or birth defect-causing substances to carry such warnings. (Most appliance cords and faux Christmas trees are made with PVC that can contain lead.)

What many people lose sight of, however, is that the bigger hazard associated with holiday lights is not lead but the potential for accidents, fire and electric shock.

As the Consumer Product Safety Commission said in a downer of a press release a few weeks back:

Holiday decorating is often depicted in movies by characters who hang countless strings of lights and suffer falls from ladders or rooftops for comic effect. Unfortunately, these types of incidents are grounded in reality... each year it is estimated that about 12,500 people go to hospital emergency rooms for falls, cuts, shocks and burns related to holiday decorating.

This morning, in fact, Hobby Lobby Stores of Oklahoma City is recalling about 2.3 million sets of Christmas lights, after the CPSC received one report of a consumer receiving a minor shock when touching a light string.

The lights have undersized wires that can separate from the plugs and the light socket. They were sold nationwide from June 2006 through early Dec. 2006 for between $2.50 and $10. Consumers should immediately stop using the lights and return them to the nearest Hobby Lobby store for a gift card. Hobby Lobby's phone number is (800) 326-7931.

In January, Target recalled more than 800,000 mini light and chasing light sets because of the risk of electric shock and fire hazard. No injuries were reported to CSPC. As with the Hobby Lobby lights, the Target lights also had undersized wires.

A month before the Target recall, Family Dollar Stores recalled 13,000 spinning Christmas tree toppers after eight reports of the topper melting or smoking.

Now I'm not trying to spoil all your holiday fun, but there are things you can look out for to avoid burning down your Christmas tree -- or worse. Make sure any fake trees are fire resistant. Keep them away from radiators. And don't inhale fake snow. (It can irritate your lungs, according to CPSC.)

You can find more holiday decorating safety tips here.

Anyone out there have any holiday decorating meltdown stories?

By Annys Shin |  December 14, 2006; 9:15 AM ET Consumer News
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

More importantly, WHY do they contain lead? I mean, if paint is regulated so as not to contain lead, why not these things? I saw an extension cord the other day whose label proclaimed it did not contain lead. I thought, "Why should it have to say it doesn't have lead- none of them should have lead?" It's like looking at a food item and seeing the label says "Does not contain poison!" Duh. So, why, when there are cheap healthy alternatives, do we have lead in things like power strips, extension cords, and christmas lights- all things that people come in contact with on a regular basis?

Posted by: Chris | December 14, 2006 9:40 AM

Why are little kids playing with lights? I mean really, this is just silly. Keep the lights away from the kids -- tell them NO, don't touch. People are too paranoid and afraid to tell their kids NO.

Also, read the directions on the lights -- there's a reason why they have them!

Another good source:

Make sure you buy your lights from a "real" store, not a flea market or a dollar store because there are counterfeit lights (with fake UL labels) that generally end up there and they are dangerous.

Posted by: WDC | December 14, 2006 10:19 AM

Notice all this stuff is made in China? Don't they have manufacturing standards there? What about Underwriters' Laboratory approval of these items?

Posted by: Anonymous | December 14, 2006 11:39 AM

I do believe the question was "Anyone out there have any holiday decorating meltdown stories"?
My answer is yes, but it was my own fault. Those old retro Christmas lights (the string I had was 15 years old) started a fire when I bulb got too hot and sparked a fire. I happen to witness it, so no damage was done. However had I been in another room when it happened it would have done damage. An ornament with a little string hanging off it caught fire. I hung it too close to a light.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 14, 2006 11:48 AM

"So, why, when there are cheap healthy alternatives, do we have lead in things like power strips, extension cords, and christmas lights" - unfortunately, for some uses there just aren't cheap healthy alternatives. Take solder, for instance - I understand the electronics industry is trying to find alternatives but everything so far comes out both more expensive and with inferior performance.

No real meltdowns here, but one really stupid moment of trying to fix a string of outdoor lights in a drizzle. Only electric shock I've ever gotten - just buzzed my fingers a bit, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Posted by: SEP | December 14, 2006 12:12 PM


Murdoch megalomania

By Jerry Mazza

James Murdoch, the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, has settled into being not only a mogul, i.e., BSkyB Chief Executive, but is guilty of the same megalomania he accused (with a sweep of his "unseen hand") the BBC of exhibiting.

Reuters via Yahoo reported young James delivered a "withering attack" on the BBC in a speech in London, hosted by UK media regulator Ofcom, the analogue of our FCC. James was trumpeting how "the triumph of the free market surely indicates that broadcasting should be more like other industries."

Well, media is not quite like other industries. Bottom line, media is about winning hearts and minds, not to mention pocketbooks. And the Murdoch family megalomania most often swings opinion to the neocon far-right and/or whatever is lowest common denominator "entertainment." There's nothing free about that.

Nor, given the scope of Sky's activities, does it seem inhibited or a slave of regulation. In fact, it seems to be inhaling the British airwaves in a variety of media enterprises, much like papa's increasing menu of media delectables, which make it the third-largest U.S. media company and growing. And that makes papa a billionaire.

How BSkyB fits in the Murdoch broadcast empire

For starters, Google tells us BSkyB stands for the blend of Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting. "Sky is a leading provider of sports, movies, entertainment and news -- whose channels are received by almost 10 million households in the United Kingdom, including 5 million digital satellite subscribers. Sky's majority owned company, Open, is also developing the network's interactive services.

"British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB -- formerly two companies, Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting) is a company that operates Sky Digital, the most popular subscription television service in the UK and Ireland. It also produces TV content, and TV channels. It is controlled by 35 percent shareholders News Corporation, an American company chaired by Rupert Murdoch."

In fact, a recent side deal with Liberty Media Corp will help Rupert Murdoch's News Corp as well avoid literally billions in capital gains taxes on their investments in News Corp and DirecTV, respectively. You can hear the gobbling from here.

What's more, papa's Fox Network was acquired in 1995 when the FCC somehow ruled in Murdoch's favor, stating that despite the fact that Fox was owned by News Ltd.'s Australian base (which should be illegal), that it would be "in the public's interest" for Murdoch's ownership to continue in the U.S. I don't personally think watching neocon news and bad sitcoms with a dash of brash episodic TV is really in the "public's interest." I think it's in the interest of the Murdoch cash register.

Wikipedia further reports that "In 1996, Fox established the Fox News Channel, a 24-hour cable news station," which I would consider in the vanguard of reactionary news. "Since its launch it has consistently eroded CNN's market share, and it now bills itself as "the most-watched cable news channel." This is due in part to recent ratings studies, released in the fourth quarter of 2004, showing that the network had nine of the top 10 programs in the 'Cable News' category." By the way, all of this "yellow journalism" licks the boots of administration policies.

"In 1999, Murdoch significantly expanded his music holdings in Australia by acquiring the controlling share in a leading Australian independent label, Michael Gudinski's Mushroom Records; he merged that with Festival Records and the result was Festival Mushroom Records (FMR). Both Festival and FMR were managed by Murdoch's son James for several years." That is until James wanted to expand his horizons. Like papa like son.

In 2003 SKY Italia was acquired. Once again, "free" is the stand-in word here for devouring markets with conservative to reactionary programming. Not unlike our own religious televangelists, notably Pat Robertson, bombarding public consciousness with his world-wide Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Begun in 1960, it comes with Robertson's own private brand of conservative and political Christianity, a story unto itself, Rapture et al.

The venerable BBC

Returning to James, his railing about being inhibited by the public service BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), which has earned itself a world-wide reputation for quality programming, from news to comedy, drama to documentary, seems disingenuous.

The BBC was established in 1926 (with a current charter running until 2007) as the national public broadcaster of the United Kingdom, and is the largest broadcasting corporation in the world, with a staff of 26,000 in the UK alone and a budget of four billion pounds a year.

True it is a state-owned system, run by a board of governors chosen by the queen on advice of government ministers. Yet the BBC's mandate according to its charter is to "be free from both political and commercial influence and answers only to its viewers and listeners." Is it perfect? No. Is it better than the banality of Sky or Fox and their conservative ideology? Yes, by far.

Sky as super network

In essence, Sky is a would-be super-network stretching towards every venue. Its latest move in the broadcasting market, according to a Reuters/Yahoo article, is "BSkyB's purchase of a 17.9 percent stake in commercial broadcaster ITV . . . currently being examined by Ofcom. Cable operator NTL, which is set to rebrand itself as Virgin Media, had considered making a bid for ITV, a move that was effectively blocked when rival BSkyB bought the stake.

"NTL's leading shareholder, Richard Branson, said this week he would fight the BSkyB move. 'The Murdoch Empire was, I think, absolutely terrified at the idea of Virgin taking over, because we would have given Sky some real competition . . . '" So there's Murdoch calling the kettle black.

As to Ofcom, let's hope it doesn't go the way of our FCC, particularly during the reign of Michael Powell. FCC regulations were relaxed on the purchase of stations by media empires like Rupert's, and this ended invariably in the sole rule of point of view in any given market. Ofcom at this time does not seem to share that problem.

Ofcom, according to James

Yet, James on his soapbox said "Ofcom should operate with a strong and undiluted bias against regulation because this would allow more innovation . . . We often think of broadcasting as a special case." It is special as I said earlier. But James continues, "Too much regulation resulted in a reduction in human freedom, a corrosion of enterprise and all at a huge cost, estimated in the UK at around 10 to 12 percent of GDP." Rhetoric as empty as his programming.

I don't see Murdoch's empire as a force for human freedom, but rather a potent reactionary force. In England, the Murdochs were censoring the US-imported Simpsons' episodes of any shadow of sexual or drug mention -- to the point where the shows were senseless and viewers complained. That is until the original cuts were returned to the air. As to the loss of GDP from Murdoch TV and reactionary print, I think the UK and America can live with it, quite freely.

So whom do you trust?

Do you trust unregulated big biz? Do you trust government regulation in the absolute? Do you trust stations with religious agendas? Do you trust the money-begging prophets? Do you trust none of them? That's probably a good start. Do you trust what you recognize as quality and distrust what looks like drivel? That's an even better start.

Yet one man's quality is another's poison, and versa visa. So we have a media quagmire: those tugging for truth, art and funding for quality and educational programming and others for endless sports, low-brow entertainment, neoncon agit-prop, a political Jesus and unchecked profit.

You pays your money, you takes your chances. Step right up. It's the greatest show on earth. And perhaps it's the tension between the forces of government, independent stations, religious zealots, conglomerates and indiscriminate viewing that makes for the present movie of our lives. We'll find enough megalomaniacs in each sector to make the movie more than interesting, hellacious or wonderful as the case may be.

Of late, we've seen more of the hellacious than the wonderful. We've also seen a yearning for the "golden age" of television as expressed in Good Night and Good Luck, which is really what it's all about, the right's proclivity to oppress and the left's passionate protest for the real-life freedoms and protections of our Constitution.
Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York City. Reach him at

Posted by: che | December 14, 2006 12:29 PM

Ahhh, I see che is back, all is right with the world.
I have a holiday meltdown story. Every year when my family decorates the tree we plug the light string in before we put it on the tree to make sure none of the bulbs have burnt out. Usually when we do this we just let the string rest on the floor. Well, not anymore. When our English bulldog was about a year old she noticed the light string and was sniffing at it, no problems there. The problem came when the lights started blinking so she bite the light bulb. Not the string, the actual bulb. Poor dog got a little shock, but nothing too serious. (And before any of you attack me, we took her to the vet to get her checked out and she was fine.) The next Christmas we didn't think anything of it and plugged in our string of lights on the floor, but figured she had learned her lesson. Apparently not cause she did it again. Another trip to the vet, she was fine. Now, we have to rest the string on the furniture to make sure she doesn't go at it, but she still jumps up and tries to eat the light bulbs. Luckly she hasn't attacked the tree yet, but it's just a matter of time.

Posted by: Melissa | December 14, 2006 12:38 PM

I see why Jerry Mazza (BBC vs FOX above) has to have his stuff posted on blogs that have nothing to do with the content. It the most boring stuff I have ever read. No paper in the world would ever print that junk.

No melt downs for me.....yet

Posted by: Down with The Man | December 14, 2006 12:59 PM

i just watched mythbusters on the Discovery Channel and they tried to light their tree on fire using christmas lights and couldn't do it, no matter how hard they tried. Seems the whole deal about lights lighting a dry tree is near flase, rather faulty wiring and overloaded circuits cause the problems. me? i bought a palm tree and decorated it....and i can keep it until next year.

Posted by: funny | December 14, 2006 1:35 PM

Notice all this stuff is made in China? Don't they have manufacturing standards there? What about Underwriters' Laboratory approval of these items?

Uh, yes. The problem lies in that there is counterfeit crap coming over, too. And all a mfg has to do is change their name. Very scary. And very, very hard to find the bad stuff as it comes over because the Chinese are about one step behind the UL label makers (have you noticed the holographic label of recent years -- all because of the counterfeiters)?

Posted by: Anonymous | December 14, 2006 2:24 PM

Has Moses' Burning Bush been supplanted by the Burning Christmas Tree?

Che is like the heating grate person you pass to and from Metro each day. They may sometimes be a minor annoyance, but you worry when they're not in their usual place.

Posted by: Mister Methane | December 14, 2006 2:39 PM

It also has to do with consumers not using the product as it was intended, in many cases.

There was a recent recall on Dell laser printers because people were getting an electric shock. It turns out that there people were doing things to the printer, like reaching inside it and pulling out parts when it was still plugged in. First, never work on anything when it's plugged in. Second, most products come with an 800 number for questions or comments.
Before you open up something and stick your finger in, make sure it's unplugged, no water or liquid is around and you know what you are doing.

There are some cases where it is out of control, like a dog biting the bulb or wires breaking loose from the casing. And there ARE defective products. Sony laptop batteries were a case of a defective product.

Many cases can be traced back to consumer error.

Know what you are doing. If you don't, call the 800 number listed on the product or product packaging.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 14, 2006 2:44 PM

No major melt downs. I did learn not to put up exterior lights too early in the morning when there is still frost on the roof. Sliding off one side and catching the gutter with your foot at the last minute is not nearly as funny as Chevy Chase would have you think :)

Posted by: Nite | December 14, 2006 3:16 PM

No major melt downs. I did learn not to put up exterior lights too early in the morning when there is still frost on the roof. Sliding off one side and catching the gutter with your foot at the last minute is not nearly as funny as Chevy Chase would have you think :)

Posted by: Nite | December 14, 2006 3:16 PM

No meltdowns, but that's because we've never had a treee or bothered to decorate for Christmas in the past 8 years. We had a fake tree at my parents' house, but since I moved out on my own at age 19, neither my fiance nor I have had a tree. Till this year. We got our first tree, and my first live tree, at the end of November. Needless to say, our decorations are sparse. We got those new LED lights, and we have the tree near the fireplace (bad idea?) and have like 20 ornaments, haha. We put the only thing from our past resembling Chirstmas decorations, a small fiber optic tree, in the living room. It has no decorations :-(

Give me a few more years. I'm sure we'll figure out how to burn the place down through trial and error by then (ack!)

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | December 14, 2006 4:02 PM

Oh I forgot to add: the LED lights have the lead warning on them. Took me aback, since the string lights my family used for 15 years never had any such warnings. I made sure to wash my hands after handling them. I agree with Chris. Why have lead in them in the first place? Isn't there some high tech polymer material they could be using instead?

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | December 14, 2006 4:05 PM

I'm surprised no one yet mentioned that if you have a live tree, make sure to keep it watered! The danger with live trees is if you let it get dry, within 6 hours sap will clog the bottom cut part of the tree. So, even if you put more water in there later, the tree can't absorb it (unless you take it down and cut it again). Then, the tree dries out. Not only does it make all the needles fall out (which is incredibly annoying!) but it makes a huge fire hazard. Make sure to keep your tree watered (I water mine 2X per day) and also consider using tree food, similar to the little packets of plant food they give you when you buy cut flowers. Happy holidays to everyone!

Posted by: bexie | December 15, 2006 10:55 AM

Cyan -- if you use that fireplace, then your live tree should be checked for dryness (i.e. needles turning color or dropping off) often. It is not recommended that you put a live tree near a heat source.

Posted by: WDC | December 15, 2006 10:57 AM

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