Life

Artificial or Real Christmas Tree? What's better for you and the environment.

What toxic chemicals are in artificial Christmas trees and tips for how to stay safe

Artificial Christmas trees are becoming increasingly popular for families. They're seen as being convenient since they don't shed needles and can be reused year after year. Some even come with lights already on them! But is the convenience of artificial Christmas trees worth it? We break down the science and the pros and cons of artificial Christmas trees and farm grown real Christmas trees to help you have a healthy and sustainable Christmas!


Toxic Chemicals in Artificial Christmas Trees

The majority of artificial trees are made using a not-so-great plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is a major source of phthalates, one of the better known endocrine disrupting chemicals (they upset how hormones are made and distributed throughout our bodies). It's used to softens plastic (think soft pine needles), but has many known negative health impacts. They have been linked to asthma, neurodevelopment issues, cancers, obesity and type II diabetes, reproductive harm, and male fertility issues (1). In fact, phthalates are so harmful to health that many are banned from children's products. They can also easily leach or migrate out of plastics and end up in your household dust which you end of eating or breathing in and is a documented source of exposure.

On top of that, lead is often used to stabilize and make PVC easier to work with. Lead particles can be released from the artificial trees over time too. The exposure risk from artificial trees is smaller, but is definitely possible (2). Lead causes numerous health issues in children and adults, and there is no known safe level (3).

Lastly, artificial trees have flame retardants added to them to prevent fires. While we definitely don't want fires, chemical flame retardants can cause problems like cancers, decreased fertility in both men and women, impacts on the immune system, disruption to the regulation and creation of hormones, and lower IQ and hyperactivity in kids (4). Artificial trees are definitely not great for health, especially if there are children or even pets at home!

Sustainability of Artificial Christmas Trees

Since artificial trees are made of plastic, which is a petroleum based product, they are not particularly good for the environment. In addition to increasing demand for fossil fuels, the life-cycle of PVC is particularly dirty, which is why many environmental groups have called attention to just how bad for the environment PVC is. The manufacturing process, as well as the burning or landfilling of PVC (at the end of its life), releases a chemical group called dioxins (5). Exposure to dioxins can cause reproductive and fertility problems, liver damage, and even developmental problems in children. Moreover, most artificial trees are produced overseas and imported so there is also the transportation and packaging toll on the environment.

But what about the reusability of artificial Christmas trees? It turns out that the average family only reuses a tree for less than a decade (many times much less)! There are new tree styles (yes that is a thing!) or they get damaged and ragged over time. And then it ends up in the landfill (no real way to recycle artificial Christmas trees). That's a pretty hefty, long-term environmental burden.

What To Do If You Already Have an Artificial Christmas Tree

Don't panic! If you are an owner of an artificial Christmas tree made out of PVC, there are precautions you can take to reduce your family's exposure to lead and phthalates.

  1. When you first get your artificial tree, let it air out outside or in the garage before bringing it inside! You want the plastic-like smell to dissipate (these are VOCs and not good for indoor air!).
  2. Try using gloves when handling the tree and wash your hands before you snack and eat.
  3. Don't let children play with the tree. After you decorate the tree, have it remain just that, a decoration! And of course, wash your children's hands before they eat or snack.
  4. Vacuum with a HEPA filter regularly. This will ensure that any chemicals are sucked away!

What To Look For In an Artificial Christmas Tree

If you're currently tree-less and in the market for an artificial one, consider purchasing a tree made out of polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). These plastics are safer than PVC, with less chance for lead contamination and less additive like phthalates. Please check with the manufacturer, as there are many trees that are a mix of PVC and these safer plastics. Try to get a tree with as high of a percentage or polyethylene or polypropylene plastic as possible. You can also look for artificial trees from a retailer that has a good chemicals policy, like Ikea that can give you some peace of mind over the materials and sustainability of your purchase.

What to Look for When Getting a Real Christmas Tree

Most people who purchase a real Christmas tree will be supporting a Christmas tree farm. Don't worry, they are not cut down from a pristine forest! Many tree farms are on hilly and rocky lands that don't support other crops. While they are growing, real Christmas trees do absorb carbon dioxide and they are biodegradable when Christmas is over. There are no scientific studies comparing the climate change impact and overall sustainability of artificial trees vs real Christmas trees. You'll find studies from representatives that represent manufacturers and tree farms supporting their own products, but there are many factors that these studies don't take into account.

One thing you can do is ask if the tree farm you are buying from sprays pesticides or is organic. Many conventional trees can be treated with pesticides like glyphosate (Roundup) and chlorpyrifos (6) that you don't want in your home and that aren't good for the environment or farmworkers. And when Christmas is over, look for local opportunities to recycle and compost your tree. Many times trees can be picked up or dropped off and then turned into wood chips or mulch to enrich soils.

Whatever you choose, an artificial or real Christmas tree, remember that it's one thing that you're bringing into your home this holiday season. Things like air travel, shopping, and the foods we eat all have a much bigger environmental and health impact. So whatever type of tree you choose, keep the bigger picture in mind!


References

    1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412016304147
    2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15628192
    3. https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-...
    4. http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/flame_re...
    5. https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/dioxins
    6. https://christmastrees.ces.ncsu.edu/faq-pesticides...
    Roundups

    Non-Toxic & Eco-Friendly Backpacks

    The most sustainable backpacks for toddlers, preschoolers, grade schoolers, teens, and adults!

    Updated for Fall 2021!

    As soon as August rolls around, all we can think of backpacks! A new backpack is often the most exciting thing on the back to school shopping list, especially if the one from last year is torn to shreds or not big enough anymore. Many backpacks are made from harmful plastics like PVC, which contains phthalates, and many times they are treated with a PFAS (Teflon-like) finish. This is why we searched high and low for backpacks that are not only cute and functional, but are also good for the environment. Our backpack recommendations are all phthalate, PVC, and lead free. We also looked for backpacks that are made from recycled water bottles, GOTS certified organic cotton, or that feature a PFAS-free water repellent. We found backs in sizes that will work for toddler, kids, teenagers and adults. Many of these backpacks have different sizing options and all of them come in assorted colors and prints so there really is a backpack for everyone!

    We list the dimensions or size in liters of each backpack below. As a reference, toddlers usually need a backpack of about 6 liters, preschoolers from 6-12 liters, elementary school kids from 12-18 liters, and teenagers/adults from 18 liters and above.

    a) Apple Park Backpack- Toddler 10.75" x 12" x 5.5", Big Kid 14.5" x 12" x 7"

    These cute backpacks are made from 100% recycled materials. Each animal backpack saves 27 plastic bottles from landfills. Also comes in an owl and fox styles, and big kid and toddler sizes.

    b) Deuter Kikki Kid's Backpack- 8 liters

    This is a really fun little kid backpack. It comes in three different colors and has a chest strap to help your little one carry their load. This backpack is PFAS free and manufactured according to the Blusign (R) standard, which ensures environmental health and safety in the manufacturing of textiles.

    c) So Young Toddler Backpack (9.5"L X 5"W X 13"H) and Grade School Backpack (11"L X 5.5"W x 15.5"H)

    So Young backpacks come in toddler and grade school sizes and all sorts of unique modern prints. They are constructed of linen and cotton and are free from harmful chemicals.

    d) Terra Thread Organic Backpack (16"H x 12"W x 5"D) and Mini Backpack (13"H x 10.5"W x 4"D)

    Terra Thread backpacks are made with a durable, thick GOTS certified organic cotton canvas. They are also carbon neutral, because the company purchases carbon offsets. Plus the backpacks are made in a Fair Trade certified factory and the company is a Certified B Corporation! Terra Thread backpacks comes in a mini and a standard size, so it works for kids (and adults!) of all sizes.

    e) Fjallraven Re-Kanken (16L) and Re-Kanken Mini (7L)

    A special edition of the trendy Kanken backpack from Fjallraven that is made entirely from polyester recycled from plastic bottles. The dye technology also reduces the amount of water, energy, and chemicals used. It comes in a mini and standard size in lots of bright color choices, so there is something for everyone. Fjallraven takes sustainability seriously and has an impressive Code of Conduct. They were also one of the first adopters of going PFAS free.

    f) North Face Youth Recon Squash Backpack (17L) and the North Face Sprout Backpack (10L)

    North Face has two excellent and well built kids backpacks that are made from 50% recycled polyester. The fabric is water repellent with a non-PFAS durable water repellent. With all the right pockets and comfortable supportive straps, including a chest clip, this backpack will last for many years.

    g) LEGO Brick Backpack (18 L)

    The perfect backpack for the Lego obsessed. There are two zippered front pockets, and the adjustable shoulder straps and sternum strap all help to make this backpack comfortable. It's also exciting that the fabric is made from recycled plastic bottles, which reduces energy use, water use, and air pollution

    h) State Kane Kids Recycled Poly Canvas Backpack Original (14.95" H x 11.22" W x 4.72" D), Mini (12.60" H x 9.45" W x 3.54" D) and Large (17" H x 13" W x 7.5" D)

    This backpack is thoughtfully designed and made from 90% recycled polyester. The main compartment has organizational zip pockets and the outside has two side water bottle pockets. The recycled fabric version also comes in several other prints and a mini version for the younger kids! There's even a large size for teenagers. State bags also gives to families in need for every backpack that is purchased.

    i) Everlane Renew Backpack (18L or 27L)

    This backpack is made from 100% recycled polyester and features a PFAS free water resistant finish. The dyes are also Bluesign (R) approved, which are safer for workers and for the environment. These backpacks feature a zippered laptop pocket and other slip and zippered pockets for organization. It's a comfy and classy backpack that is perfect for class, work, or travel.

    j) Fluf B Pack (22L)

    These Fluf backpacks are made from GOTS certified organic cotton with 100% recycled polyester felt padding. There is a sleeve for a laptop and a zipper front pouch. For every backpack sold, Fluf donates to support sending a girl to school in a developing country through Plan International.

    k) Vera Bradley Reactive Grand Backpack (25 L)

    A favorite brand of tweens and teenagers, Vera Bradley now makes backpacks from recycled plastic bottles. This backpack comes in a couple of trendy prints and colors and can hold all the school books kids will need.

    l) Jansport Recycled SuperBreak Backpack (26 L)

    A classic backpack, but now made with 100% recycled materials. Each backpack is made from the equivalent of 20 plastic bottles! This is a quality lightweight backpack that is great for school and more.


    *Because Health is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program so that when you click through our Amazon links, a percentage of the proceeds from your purchases will go to Because Health. We encourage you to shop locally, but if you do buy online buying through our links will help us continue the critical environmental health education work we do. Our participation does not influence our product recommendations. To read more about how we recommend products, go to our methodology page.

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    Roundups

    Non-Toxic School Lunch Packing Essentials

    Get ready for school with these eco-friendly options

    Packing lunches for school is a lot of work! We know from firsthand experience how hard it can be to pack something nutritious that your kids will actually eat. Plus if you're trying to reduce the amount of food packaging or plastic waste in your kid's lunch, it can just seem overwhelming. To make things easier, we rounded up our favorite non-toxic school lunch packing essentials. We included stainless steel lunchboxes, a hot food container, snack containers and bags, reusable food wrap, and a couple of cute and functional lunch bags. All of these items are free of lead, phthalates (commonly found in vinyl), BPA, and PFAS (Teflon-like chemicals). Check out these lunch packing essentials and get inspired to pack the best lunches ever.



    a) Lunchbots Large Stainless Steel Lunch Container

    Lunchbots is a great stainless steel bento container that will last for years. This one has 5 compartments for every type of lunch and snack combo you can come up with. You can get dip condiment containers that are leak proof that neatly fit inside. Lunchbots also has smaller containers for snacks that you should check out as well.

    b) Planetbox Lunchbox

    This stainless steel lunch box is easy for kids to open with a simple latch. The lunchbox comes with containers for wet foods and dips and you can buy extra dividers. The different compartments make it easy to pack a variety of foods. We love how it comes with magnets on the cover so that kids can customize the look. Planetbox also has an insulated carry bag, just make sure to pick one of the patterns that is made without a PFAS durable water repellent. Planetbox also has a smaller sized box for snacks or for little ones.

    c) Bentgo Kids Stainless Steel

    Bentgo is a favorite bento container that now comes in stainless steel! The silicone lining on the lid makes it leak resistant as and the latches make the container easy to open. It comes with 3 compartments and an extra silicone container.

    d) Thermos Stainless Steel Insulated Food Jar

    This container keeps food hot for 5 hours and is perfect for days when soup or mac n cheese are on the menu. The handle make it convenient to carry and helps kids open the top.

    e) Stasher bags

    Stasher bags are so popular for a reason! Say goodbye to single use plastic bags and say hello to a reusable food packing essential that comes in lots of fun colors. We particularly love the sandwich and snack sizes and use them daily.

    f) Zip Top Snack Containers

    These Zip Top container are as convenient to use as they are cute! We love how they sit flat and are easy to open for small hands. They are perfect for some sliced fruit or any loose snack.

    g) Ukonserve Round Nesting Trio Stainless Steel Containers

    These snack containers come with see through lids so that kids know what's inside. The are great for snacks, or use all three to pack a bento style lunch. They also nest for easy storage.

    h) If you care Sandwich Bags

    Sometimes you need a disposable sandwich or snack bag. No judgement! These If You Care unbleached sandwich bags are made of greaseproof, nonstick paper which is biodegradable, compostable, and microwave safe. Perfect for a cookie, sandwich, or other dry snack.

    i) Bee's Wrap Reusable Food Wrap

    Replace plastic wrap with this sustainable alternative. Bee's Wrap is made from GOTS Certified organic cotton, sustainably harvested beeswax, organic jojoba oil, and tree resin. We love wrapping up snacks, sandwiches, and cut up fruits and veggies in these.

    j) Fluf Lunch Bag

    This organic cotton canvas lunch bag is fully machine washable! The interior is lined with a food safe water resistant lining (free of PFAS, phthalates, and other harmful chemicals) and has a pocket for a ice pack. The bag comes in so many cute prints and has a very durable canvas handle.

    k) Fjallraven Kanken Mini Cooler

    This well insulated lunch bag is made of durable, waxed fabric that is PFAS free! Bonus that the the fabric is made from recycled plastic. It comes in lots of cute colors and is sure to be a favorite for kids of all ages.

    l) Petit Collage

    A roomy insulated lunch box that is easy to wipe clean thanks to a biodegradable laminate made from sugar cane. It comes in several cute patterns and comes with a handle or a strap.

    m) Ukonserve insulated lunch bag

    This lunch bag is made from recycled plastic bottles and is free of PFAS, phthalates, and other toxic chemicals. It holds ups well to daily use and is roomy enough to pack a lunch plus snacks.

    Roundups

    Non-Toxic Hand Sanitizer

    Tough on germs, without unnecessary yucky chemicals

    Updated for Fall 2021!

    Between COVID-19, flu season, or changing a poopy diaper on the go, hand sanitizer can be a life saver. But a lot of commercial hand sanitizers can contain fragrances and some pretty gross chemicals. To make sure you're getting the best possible product, we reviewed a ton of options and made sure they're easy to find at stores. There are options for gels, sprays, and wipes and lots of yummy smells like lavender or coconut and lemon, or just simply fragrance free if you want something simple. Try out several and stash them in places where you might need them, like the car, a favorite purse, backpack, or laptop bag. All of our non-toxic hand sanitizer recommendations are safer for you but super tough on germs!

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    Food

    4 Recipes for Batch Summer Drinks that You Can Spike AND that are Kid-Friendly

    Ditch single use plastic and canned drinks at your next party

    Summer is basically one big outdoor party. Anyone else wishing it will never end? With all of the heat, it's important to have icy beverages that everyone can enjoy. While it's easy to just load up with flats of canned cocktails or plastic bottles of flavored sparkling water, making a big batch of easy, tasty drinks is more budget friendly and planet friendly! Here are 4 of our favorite drink recipes meant for big containers, so you can quickly prepare them in advance and just set up a glass beverage dispenser as people start to arrive. Kids will love these fruity drinks and so will adults, especially if you add a splash of alcohol into your cup (we won't tell!). Plus you'll be skipping out on single use plastic bottles and BPA-lined aluminum cans. Try out one of these recipes at your next summer BBQ or event!


    Spiked Lemonade

    -1 gallon of water

    -3 cups lemon juice

    -3.5 cups white sugar

    -Fruit like peach, blueberries, blackberries, mint, etc

    -4 cups vodka or 1 shot per glass if adding vodka after pouring

    Instructions

    1. Stir the sugar into the water until it's completely dissolved.
    2. Mix in the lemon juice, fruit, and optional vodka. Serve over ice.

    Fruit Punch

    -8 cups ginger ale

    -4 cups orange juice

    -4 cups pineapple juice

    -sliced fruit like orange

    -Optional: 2 cups rum

    Instructions

    1. Combine all ingredients and serve over ice

    Watermelon Refresher

    -8 cups seedless watermelon, cubed

    -2 cups water

    -2 cups ginger ale

    -2 cups lime juice

    -4 cups gin or vodka or 1 shot per glass if adding after pouring

    Instructions

    1. Blend watermelon in a blender until pulverized. If you want a completely smooth consistency without pulp, strain the blended watermelon through a sieve.
    2. Combine all ingredients, including pulverized watermelon, and serve over ice.

    Hibiscus Watermelon Cooler

    8 cups water

    8 hibiscus tea bags

    8 cups watermelon juice (puree watermelon in blender)

    ½ cup honey

    1 cup lime juice

    4 cups tequila or 1 shot per glass if adding after pouring

    Instructions

    1. Add the teabags to the water and let steep for 5-10 minutes
    2. Remove the teabags and add the rest of the ingredients
    3. Serve over ice
    Food

    Summer BBQ Essentials

    Don't break out the grill without these non-toxic finds!

    Summer isn't complete without at least one BBQ! They're the ultimate excuse to get together with friends, enjoy the nice weather, and cook delicious food (even if you're doing meat-free Monday). If you're new to the BBQ scene, then you might not realize that an outdoor get-together can require some specialized gear. Standard BBQ gear can be made from harmful materials like melamine, plastic, and PFAS, which is why we wanted to find alternative products that were safer for our health. Our summer BBQ essentials roundup has everything you need and more to throw the best party ever! And don't forget to check out our tips for a non-toxic BBQ!


    Stainless Steel Popsicle Mold

    Stainless Steel Grill Basket

    Glass Beverage Dispenser

    Cast Iron Griddle Pan

    Carbon Steel Grill Frying Pan

    Moscow Mule Mugs

    Enamelware with seafood pattern

    Grill tools

    Stainless steel Citrus Press Juicer

    Food

    Canned Coffee is Convenient, But What About BPA?

    Why they should be a treat instead of part of your daily routine

    Now that we're all working from home, it's easy to get bored of our everyday homemade coffee routine. Sometimes we just want something different to wake us up in the morning or even a quick pick me up in the afternoon! That's where canned coffee comes into play. It's quick, convenient, and comes in a ton of flavors. But that convenience might come at a cost; there's been concerns surrounding the use of BPA in the lining of canned products. So, does canned coffee pose a risk to health? We looked at the research to find out.

    The Problem With BPA in Cans

    BPA, or bisphenol A, is a synthetic chemical that acts like estrogen in our bodies and it has been known to screw with important hormones like testosterone and thyroid hormones. Some of the common health problems associated with BPA include breast cancer, reduced sperm production, obesity, reproductive issues, disruption of brain development and function, and damaging effects to the liver (1). To make matters worse, there is more and more scientific evidence that even very low doses of BPA exposure can be harmful, especially for pregnant women and babies. Low doses of BPA exposure have been tied to abnormal liver function, chronic inflammation of the prostate, cysts on the thyroid and pituitary gland, and many more serious health effects during the early stages of life (5).

    Even though BPA is definitely not a chemical we want to be exposed to, it's found basically everywhere, including our food. One common place to find BPA is the internal lining of canned foods or beverages. BPA can help prevent corrosion between the metal and the food or drink inside a can, but over time (or if stored under the wrong conditions like high temperatures), it can start to leach out and get into the food or drink (2). Even cans that say BPA free can have nasty BPA alternatives that have been shown to have similar hormone disrupting effects (7).

    Studies have shown that canned soft drinks, beers, and energy drinks all had small traces of BPA in them. Beer was found with the highest concentration of BPA, followed by energy drinks. Soft drinks were found to have the lowest concentration of BPA. In order to find out where BPA in these drinks was coming from, researchers compared the canned drinks to the same drinks packaged in glass bottles. They found very little to no traces of BPA in the glass bottled drinks, which means that the source of BPA in the canned drinks was definitely coming from the cans themselves (2,3,4).

    Even if there are only small traces of leachable BPA, it can still be harmful if we are consuming canned products on a regular basis.

    Is Canned Coffee Safe?

    With the recent increase in popularity of cold brew and other canned coffee drinks, there have not been extensive studies on BPA levels in canned coffee. However, one study of canned coffee drinks in Asia, where they have been popular for longer, did find that BPA was leaching into the coffee from the can. Interestingly, they also found that the more caffeine was in the coffee, the more BPA leached from the can into the drink. Meaning the more caffeine, the more BPA! (4,6) Now before you think you can get away with only drinking decaf canned coffee, keep in mind that caffeine only increases the leaching from the can, but it can still happen without it (6).

    Even though the levels of BPA found in canned coffee were relatively small, because BPA is all around us in so many common products, we should try to limit our exposure as much as we can. This means that it's probably okay to drink a canned coffee every once in a while, but best practice is to not drink them every day. But if you're in the middle of a road trip and are desperate for some energy, don't get too stressed about grabbing a canned coffee!

    Canned Coffee Alternatives

    If you're starting to get worried about what coffee to buy when you're out and about or when you want something more than just plain coffee, don't stress! We thought of some easy and fun alternatives for your canned coffee fix that might make you forget all about it!

    1. Swap out the canned coffee for coffee in a glass bottle or tetrapaks whenever possible.
    2. Find some fun new ways to make coffee at home like using a Chemex or a nice French press!
    3. Go get a coffee at your local coffee shop. Support small businesses if you can!
    4. If you like canned coffee because of the flavors, try making your own caramel or mocha sauce at home. It's pretty easy and it saves money! For something icy and refreshing, we are partial to muddling some fresh mint with some cold brew.


    References

    vom Saal, F. S., & Vandenberg, L. N. (2021). Update on the Health Effects of Bisphenol A: Overwhelming Evidence of Harm. Endocrinology, 162(bqaa171). https://doi.org/10.1210/endocr/bqaa171 (1)

    Cao, X.-L., Corriveau, J., & Popovic, S. (2010). Sources of Low Concentrations of Bisphenol A in Canned Beverage Products. Journal of Food Protection, 73(8), 1548–1551. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X-73.8.1548 (2)

    Determination of BPA, BPB, BPF, BADGE and BFDGE in canned energy drinks by molecularly imprinted polymer cleaning up and UPLC with fluorescence detection. (2017). Food Chemistry, 220, 406–412. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.10.005 (3)

    Kang, J.-H., & Kondo, F. (2002). Bisphenol A migration from cans containing coffee and caffeine. Food Additives and Contaminants, 19(9), 886–890. https://doi.org/10.1080/02652030210147278 (4)

    Prins, G. S., Patisaul, H. B., Belcher, S. M., & Vandenberg, L. N. (2019). CLARITY-BPA academic laboratory studies identify consistent low-dose Bisphenol A effects on multiple organ systems. Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, 125(S3), 14–31. https://doi.org/10.1111/bcpt.13125 (5)

    Kang, J.-H., & Kondo, F. (2002). Bisphenol A migration from cans containing coffee and caffeine. Food Additives and Contaminants, 19(9), 886–890. https://doi.org/10.1080/02652030210147278 (6)

    Pelch, K., Wignall, J. A., Goldstone, A. E., Ross, P. K., Blain, R. B., Shapiro, A. J., Holmgren, S. D., Hsieh, J.-H., Svoboda, D., Auerbach, S. S., Parham, F. M., Masten, S. A., Walker, V., Rooney, A., & Thayer, K. A. (2019). A scoping review of the health and toxicological activity of bisphenol A (BPA) structural analogues and functional alternatives. Toxicology, 424, 152235. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tox.2019.06.006 (7)

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