The Dark Side of Candles - Part Two of a 2-part Report

Since doing the research for this story, I think twice about lighting up the big square mauve candle that graces my bathroom. Just as the resources I found stated, it has that high erratic flame, and I can see the soot rising from it at times. I'm also more diligent about letting candles just burn aimlessly for hours on end. A few weeks ago, I had to attend a meeting at the church I belong to, and I took the opportunity to inspect the alcove that houses the rack of votive candles. Sure enough, there's a film of soot all over the surrounding area. One can even see the finger marks the caretaker left behind when he changed out the light bulb that illuminates the alcove. He must have had a nice smearing of soot on his hand when he was done! I chatted with the church's housekeeper recently, and she said that while the candles burned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the sooting seems to be contained to the immediate area surrounding the candle rack, even though the church building is equipped with a central air conditioning system. This may indicate the importance of keeping burning candles out of the draft of an air conditioner's return air duct, as mentioned in last month's report.

The first part of this article last month touched on the damage from soot that can occur from burning certain types of candles. While such damage can range from mildly annoying to devastatingly expensive, this month's article touches on a side effect of burning aromatic candles that is perhaps more insidious - the potential for endangering the air that we breathe inside our homes, and therefore our health.

According to Mr. David Krause, an air quality expert,  recently wrote for the RSES Journal, the official publication of the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (www.rses.org). He states that "while soot is suspended in the air, room occupants are at risk of inhalation exposure. Since the particles are less than 1 micron in diameter, they can penetrate the deepest part of the lungs."

Just what's in candle soot? The same materials that is in diesel engine exhaust! People exposed to diesel soot over an extended period of time, say 8 hours a day for a year, such as in a workplace,  have been known to develop respiratory problems. Mr. Krause asserts that the same could be said for heavily scented, aromatic candles.

The materials that candle wicks made of can also pose a serious problem. Heavily scented candles result in a softer wax because of the scented oils that are added. This requires manufacturer's to use a stiffer wick, one that has a metal core. Many of the candles on the market today, and usually those that are imported, have a lead core. 

Last year the Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, (http://jama.ama-assn.org) reported on research conducted by the Public Citizen's Health Research Group, of Washington, DC. They set out to estimate the average 24-hour ambient air lead levels in a typical, energy-efficient home. They tested various lead wick candles, burning them for 3 hours, replicating the typical fresh air exchange in an energy-efficient home. What they concluded was that the resulting 24-hour air lead concentrations was 10 to 36 times above the EPA safety standard! They reported that children 6 years and under are specially vulnerable to these lead emissions.

As a result of their testing, Public Citizen filed a petition with the Consumer Protection Agency requesting a ban and recall on all lead wick candles.

In 1974, American candle makers agreed to voluntarily stop using lead wicks. The National Candle Association (www.candles.org), a trade group that represents 95% of U.S. candle manufacturers, says that no reputable candlemaker in the U.S. uses lead in its candles. Their web site states that "the majority of wicks manufactured today in the U.S. are made of 100 percent cotton � with no metal core. Those few wicks with metal are typically zinc-core wicks. All of these wicks are safe." The NCA also supports a ban on lead wicks.It should be noted, says the National Candle Association, that candles have been used for hundreds of years without problems. The group further states that while the popularity of aromatherapy has fanned the growth of candles, no one in the candle business should associate aromatherapy with candles, because it has nothing to do with candles.

Yet some companies still promote candles as a form of aromatherapy. Should people mistakenly make a conscience effort to breathe in the fumes, they could be poisoning themselves. Various studies have reported some burning candles can emit various levels of harmful substances in addition to lead, including acetone, benzene and mercury. In all fairness it needs to be noted that these were mostly very low level emissions. Of course one would want to use common sense and not sit over a candle inhaling these fumes!

Candlemakers aren't required to list ingredients on their labels, so consumers have to be proactive in protecting themselves. Here's a list to help guard against harmful emission problems:

It's not my intention to cause panic with all this information. I still have scented candles all over the house. I'm just a little more scrupulous when I do light one up!

- The Staff at Filter Solutions