Besides the danger of fire, could there be another hidden danger? Last year the American Lung Association issued a warning stating that candles are fast becoming one of the most common unrecognized causes of poor indoor air quality. Since then, there has been a flurry of reports saying that candles are a health hazard.
Healthy & Natural discusses this issue with Mike Richards, president and founder of Candleworks, Inc. of Iowa City, Iowa. Started only nine years ago, Candleworks has become a nationally recognized company not only for its all-natural candles but also for its social and environmental commitment.
Q: What type of wax is generally used in candles?
Paraffin is the predominant wax used in the candle industry. Paraffin is basically the "bottom of the barrel" even after asphalt is extracted. Paraffin is the final byproduct in the petroleum refining chain.
A retired chemical engineer who worked with the largest refiner of mineral oils and petrolatums in the United States, explains that one barrel of crude oil when refined gives the following percentages:
LP gas - 2.3
Refinery gas - 3.7
AV gas - 0.2
Motor gasoline - 45.7
Jet fuels - 6.8
Kerosene - 1.2
Diesel and heating oils - 21.1
Residual fuel oils - 11.3
Petrochemical feedstock - 4.6
Lubricants - 1.3
Asphalt, road oil, coke and paraffin wax - total 5.3
Q: When did paraffin candles first appear on the market?
About 120 years ago, candles began to be mass-produced for commercial use. This parallels the emergence of the petroleum refinery industry. Paraffin is the byproduct or leftover residue of refined petroleum. Because paraffin is produced in such huge quantities (The United States produces about 10 billion pounds each year), it became the logical choice for the candle and food packaging industries.
Q: What makes paraffin candles hazardous to our health?
David Krause, an air quality engineer and former employee of the Florida Department of Health, says that the soot given off from the burning of paraffin candles is the same as that given off by burning diesel fuel. Some of the air contaminants in paraffin fumes include toluene, benzene, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), and naphthalene--substances found in paint, lacquer and varnish removers.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that benzene and toluene are probable human carcinogens.
The state of California, under its Proposition 65 Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, has identified at least seven major toxins in paraffin wax including the carcinogen benzene.
Q: Are the candle wicks also toxic?
About 30 percent of the candles on the market have lead core wicks. Lead and zinc are metals commonly used in the core of the wicks. The metal makes the wicks stand up straight making candle manufacturing easier.
The University of Michigan recently conducted a study which showed that one-third of the candles tested from the United States and overseas released more lead into the air than is recommended as safe by the EPA. The study also showed the amounts of lead in the air increased the longer the candles burned.
Q: Didn't the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) know about the wicks as early as the 1970s?
Yes. In the early 1970s, the notice was made regarding the lead wicks and the candle industry said they would voluntarily stop using lead or other metals in the wicks. However, 26 years later the University of Michigan took random samplings and found about 30 percent of the candles tested still used the lead wicks.
Q: How do the fumes from burning paraffin affect us?
At this point medical information is inadequate. There is definitely a need for more thorough medical studies to determine exactly the short-term and long-term effects of inhaling paraffin fumes. The state of California, with its Proposition 65, seems to be where a lot of investigation is taking place.
Dr. Andrew Well has made statements on his web page about paraffin fumes causing tumors in the kidneys and livers of lab animals. He does not, however, cite his sources.
We at Candleworks have just filed a grant application with Iowa State University to do comparative studies on soybean wax, beeswax and paraffin candles beginning September 1. While this will be a one-year project, some initial data should be completed within three months.
Q: What about scented candles or those used for aromatherapy?
People should realize that most oils used in scented candles are petroleum-based synthetics and not the natural plant-derived essential oils. Whenever we sell our soybean wax to other candlemakers, we encourage them to use natural plant-based oils.
Q: What does the National Candle Association have to say?
It is interesting to note that the National Candle Association, the organization that represents the candle industry in the United States, has sent me a letter asking me to cease telling the public about the dangers of paraffin. When the American Lung Association made a similar announcement last year, the NCA threatened them with legal action.
Note: Country Light Candle Company manufacturers all natural candles made from all natural Soy Wax and Palm Wax, using only all cotton wicks and quality fragrance and essential oils.