RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. And this Christmas morning I'm just going to imagine that you're ripping off all that lovely gift wrap, and I'm here to warn you of the dangers. Sorry, just one of the things that can be bad at Christmas. Every year local fire departments across the country warn people not to burn wrapping paper in the fireplace. Still, people keep doing it. And sometimes in the flames they see strange colors. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce investigates.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: OK. So, I'm sitting here in front of a nice roaring fire and I'm going to try some of this colored paper. I think I'll start with a nice green wrapping paper with pictures of pine cones. Try putting that in the fire there. Let's see. And oo, there's very definitely dark green flames, like greenish blue flames is coming off it.
Mr. SIDNEY KATZ (Chemist): Just think about fireworks. The color pyrotechnics are different chemical compounds at high temperature.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I called up Sidney Katz, he's a chemist.
Mr. KATZ: Strictly green is barium, white is magnesium, strontium is usually red, and these are the typical pyrotechnic mixtures.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And some metals, like barium can be found in certain ink pigments, which is why burning colored paper can occasional create little fireworks in your fireplace.
Katz is just starting his retirement, after a long career at Rucker's University in New Jersey. About three decades ago he made big news when he bought a bunch of gift wrap, tested it in his lab, and found surprising amounts of toxic metal.
Mr. KATZ: Way back in the olden days, like 1980, yellow pigment was usually lead chromate.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And lead as you know, is bad for you.
Mr. KATZ: My concern was that, what do you do with Christmas wrapping papers? Well, you throw it out or burn it in the fireplace. And if you burn it, you create airborne particulates which are inhaled. Or even young children might chew stuff, because kids chew everything.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I asked Katz what he thought about today's wrapping paper. He says over the years U.S. manufacturers have switched to safer pigments.
Mr. KATZ: If it's made by Hallmark and it's made with American pigments, it's probably OK.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he says who knows what pigments are used in stuff from overseas. He said he'd already closed his lab, otherwise he'd try to find out. He suggested I could do a little study.
OK. I'm at a Wal-Mart near Washington, D.C., in the Christmas shop area, checking out the Christmas wrap. There's a whole bunch of rolls here. A lot of them say they were from the U.S. - made in the U.S.A. But a fair number of them come from other places, especially China.
So, I bought 17 rolls from Wal-Mart and Target - all different colors. I cut off samples, and took them to a lab I'd found online. I asked them to test for lead. A couple days later, the lab called, and left me a message.
Unidentified Female Speaker: The wrapping paper was analyzed for lead. And they were all - all came up less than the reporting limit.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I had no idea what that meant. So, I got the full results and emailed them to Katz. He wrote back that, quote, I would conclude that the current generation of wrapping papers are essentially lead-free. So, does that mean we can burn them with wild abandon? Gary Jones is director of Environmental Health and Safety Affairs for a trade group called Printing Industries of America. He says today's printing ink does use safe pigments, but when you burn something it can change.
Mr. GARY JONES (Environmental Health and Safety Affairs Director, Printing Industries of America): You know, you're not dealing with a pigment at that point, you're looking at what happened as a result of burning a pigment or burning a metal. You wouldn't want to be breathing any of that smoke in - you don't want to breathe any smoke in, period.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After all, just burning plain paper produces unhealthy stuff. Neal Langerman agrees that breathing smoke is generally a bad idea. He runs a consulting firm called Advanced Chemical Safety in San Diego. But still, he didn't seem too concerned about the whole wrapping paper in the fireplace scenario.
Mr. NEAL LANGERMAN (Advanced Chemical Safety, San Diego): I'll bet I've tossed a crumbled up gift wrap paper ball in a fire on a holiday, on occasion.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, is this something we should worry about do you think?
Mr. LANGERMAN: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LANGERMAN: No.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says smoke doesn't really come into the room, it goes up the chimney. And speaking of the chimney, probably the biggest danger of burning wrapping paper, burning paper could float up, start a chimney fire and burn down your house. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.