Certainly burning candles can infuse a room with ambiance, warmth and light, but are those glowing beauties on your table also infusing the room with chemicals that are making you sick? Unfortunately, if they are made of paraffin, have a lead wick or include any sort of special scent (anyone have those “holiday spice” scented candles out for the winter holiday seasons?), those seemingly harmless candles could be filling the air in your home and your lungs with toxic fumes and soot. But fortunately, healthier alternatives abound (more on those below). With very little effort, you can get that dramatic candle glow without filling your home and body with toxins!
A 1999 study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, a 2001 study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and 2009 study conducted by researchers at South Carolina State University all found that most candles on the market often emit dangerous chemicals, many of which are carcinogens, when burned. While there have been no definitive studies determining the long-term health effects of exposure to emissions from candles, since the verdict is still out, I’d prefer to be on the safe side and reduce my exposure.
The Problems with Most Candles
Paraffin wax is the major ingredient in most candles on the market and is made from petroleum waste products (i.e., crude oil). According to researchers at South Carolina State University, candles made from paraffin wax emit dangerous chemicals into the air, including known cancer-causing agents benzene and toluene, when burned. Not sure about you, but I really don’t want to be sucking that stuff in as I’m enjoying my meal! Since there are at least 4 cancer-causing chemicals associated with paraffin candles, I’d prefer to avoid it.
If your candles are made of paraffin (or you’re not sure whether they are), then I’d suggest just using those pretty candles for decoration without lighting them and opting instead for candles made from 100% beeswax or soy.
Synthetic Colors and Fragrances
And usually the chemicals in candles don’t stop there. Many candles have added synthetic dyes and fragrances which release additional toxins when burned. While the warm candle glow with added fragrance might be appealing, the ingredients in those synthetic fragrances are not… the synthetic fragrance oils added to candle wax are generally based on petroleum products and contain a vast array of chemicals, some of which are classified by the EPA as “hazardous waste”!
Try to find candles colored with vegetable-based ingredients, and if you do want added aroma with your candle, then look for candles fragranced with pure essential oils.
The primary public health concern with candle emissions is often lead. Lead was originally put in candle wicks to keep the wicks standing straight when the surrounding wax begins to melt. Although legislation was passed in the U.S. to ban lead in candle wicks in 2003, unfortunately it is still present in many candles which make their way onto store shelves and the internet today (China, Taiwan, the UK and Canada for example, don’t currently have legislation prohibiting lead in candle wicks).
A study conducted in 1999 by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health analyzed emissions of lead from fourteen different brands of candles with metal-core wicks purchased in Michigan stores, and they found that all of the candles emitted various amounts of lead into the air at concentrations above the EPA outdoor ambient air quality standard. Note, the EPA standard is for outdoor air – not indoor air of an enclosed space!
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) similarly found that even in one hour of burning, some lead-cored wicks emit large amounts of lead into the air – as much as seven times the rate that could lead to elevated levels of lead in a child!
We can inhale the vaporized lead in the air, and children in particular may also be exposed to the lead that settles on objects and surfaces in the area by putting these objects in their mouths or by touching these objects or surfaces and then putting their hands in their mouths. While lead poisoning is no good for anyone, lead poisoning in children is particularly deleterious because of their small body size and is associated with behavioral problems, learning disabilities, hearing problems and growth retardation. Also according to the CPSC, although the primary source of lead poisoning in the U.S. is lead from paint in older homes, lead accumulates in the body, and even exposure to small amounts of lead can contribute to the overall level of lead in the blood.
If those toxins from burning most candles weren’t enough, paraffin wax candles produce soot that can cause significant damage to the inside of your house (ever had those stains on ceilings, drapery and furniture?), electrical appliances (like a laptop) and ventilation systems. And the microscopic soot particles at fault for this cosmetic damage are also easily inhaled, leading to possible respiratory irritation. According to the EPA, scented candles produce even more soot than unscented ones, so if you do choose to burn any candles in your home, best to avoid scented candles when you can.
How ‘cleanly’ a candle burns, depends on many things including the type of wax it is made of, whether it is perfumed and what type of wick it has.
If you want the glow of candlelight in your home with a minimum of toxic emissions, consider opting for candles made of 100% natural beeswax and look for the unscented kind. But make sure to look for 100% beeswax on the label, as some companies will use only a portion of beeswax (51%) mixed with paraffin, and then label them as “beeswax candles”. Candles made from soy also burn clean, with no harmful fumes, and have very long burn times as well. (There are also claims that beeswax candles, actually purify the air when they burn… while I can’t find enough information to determine the science behind this claim, clean burning is better than carcinogen releasing!)
If a candle has a metal wick, it can be hard to tell if it’s made with lead. So unless it has a “lead free” label, then I’d choose candles that have wicks made from natural fibers such as cotton instead. If you have any candles at home that have wicks with a metal core (just peel back the tip of the wick a bit to see if there is any metal there), I’d recommend not burning those and just using them for decoration.
Hope this helps keep you and your loved ones naturopathically healthy!