Eco Answers From the Eco-Expert

Environmental advise on candlelight, mold, car products, water softeners and mothballs.

| November/December 1999

  • Courtesy of The Company Store

Candlelight, Candle Bright

I enjoy burning candles, but have heard that there may be health hazards associated with this holiday tradition. Can you explain the problem? I love the gentle glow of candlelight and don’t want to give up my candles!
—Wendy Li, Washington, D.C.

The problem is only with some ­paraffin and scented candles. Some paraffin candles still have lead core wicks which, according to preliminary tests, volatilize during normal burning and emit particulate-matter lead.

Children are particularly vulnerable to such emissions. Chronic low-level exposure to lead has been found to produce permanent neuro-psychological defects and behavior disorders in children, including low IQ, short attention span, hyperactive behavior, and motor difficulties. In adults, early signs of lead poisoning include gastrointestinal problems, muscle pains and weakness, irritability, excessive thirst, headache, insomnia, depression, and lethargy.

In a home that burned a number of candles with lead core wicks, preliminary wipe test results showed 40 mg of lead per square foot—an unacceptable level, since 100 percent inhaled lead is ab­sorbed into the bloodstream. In fact, there is no safe level for lead exposure. Simply breathing in small particulate matter such as that released by lead core wicks can irritate and damage the lungs and cause breathing problems. People with asthma or any type of lung or heart disease should be particularly cautious. Moreover, fumes from paraffin wax itself have been found to cause kidney and bladder tumors in laboratory animals.

Now that aromatherapy has become so popular, many amateurs have begun to manufacture candles without the proper training. Such inexperienced candlemakers are dumping far too many fragrance oils into their wax mixtures—some of which are artificial and unsuitable for combustion. Toxic chemicals found in the combustion by-products of scented candles include acetone, benzene, carbon disulfide, carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethene, chlorobenzene, xylene, phenol, cyclopentene, lead, carbon monoxide, soot, and particulate matter. Finally, in addition to producing toxic chemicals, artificial fragrances do not offer the healing benefits of the true essential oils used by experienced aromatherapy practitioners. Candle manufacturers are not required to list or disclose hazardous, toxic, or carcinogenic compounds used in their products or even warn against lead content and ­emissions.

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