Burning Candles Can Cause Indoor Air Pollution

by admin on September 2, 2008

I was interested to read the research out there. Long ago, I decided to stop burning paraffin wax candles in my home, knowing that they are petroleum derived and that burning petroleum products releases a whole host of carcinogens. Aside from my assumption, I knew very little about the actual danger associated with burning candles. The research out there is even scarier than I had originally thought.


In order to make the wicks more durable, candle makers have been using a lead or zinc core surrounded by cotton or other materials. When burned, this lead ends up in the air as particulate matter and settles on surrounding furniture. Lead is toxic to humans and there is a lawsuit pending against a retailer who sold a woman candles containing lead that subsequently produced lead poisoning in her family members. The lead concentration in her home, caused by burning candles with lead wicks was 27 times the safe allowable amount in her area. To avoid candles with lead wicks, gently scrape away a little bit of the top layer of wax at the base of the wick to look for metallic fibers. Unless the candle specifically states that it contains no lead, don’t buy or burn the candle. Zinc is used as a wick stablizer as well, but I was unable to find any specific health claims related to zinc; that is not to say that there aren’t any. Another way to check for a lead wick is to gently fan the fibers at the top of the wick and look for shiny metal mixed in. This also indicates and lead or zinc core. Another problem with burning candles containing lead, aside from the airborne particulate matter is the soot produced by the burning. If you are dusting your house and notice the cloth contains darker “dust” than normal, you may have soot build up. Whether you candles have lead or not, burning creates soot. When children put their hands in this dirty dust, then into their mouths, they are getting an even higher dose of lead and other burning byproducts.

Smoke Anyone?

The National Candle Association states that candles and other home products such as cooking oils  are “everyday household sources of soot are not considered a health concern.” According to the EPA, however, paraffin wax candles, when burned are known to release benzene and tolulene – cigarrette anyone? When I was a child, my parents used to burn dollar store candles in the house to “burn the smoke out of the air”. Although it made no appreciable difference to the amount of cigarrette smoke, it probably made the situation worse! The soot from burning candles causes financial hardships as well. Heating and air conditioning manufacturers are successfully fighting law suits over apparently “deffective” units because the build up of soot from candles caused the equipment failure. So who to believe? Well, obviously both parties have agendas, but I am going to side with the EPA on this one. But, keep in mind, it was the soot from all burning candles; not just paraffin candles.

Making Sense of Scents

Another addititive to watch out for, in paraffin, soy and other candles is artificial scent. People with allergies have known for years that articial scents found in insense, perfume, air fresheners and candles causes their asthma to spike, their nose and eyes to water and their sinuses to become irritated. Many of the scents used make therapeutic aromatherapy claims. There are some companies that use genuinely good quality essential oils when making their candles, but many (probably most) don’t, and furthermore, need not disclose the ingredients used to generate the “tranquility” or “sensual” aromas they give out. The smell generated to “improve” the odour in your home serves only to mask other smells with a more powerful chemical smell. In addition, many artificially scented candles have been shown to release volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), another significant health hazard. A happy alternative would be to purchase good quality essential oils and place a few drops into boiling water to infuse your house with a natural smell. The American Lung Association suggests avoiding scented and long burning candles.

Soy, Palm and Beeswax Candles: Are They Safer Alternatives?

Both soy and beeswax candles burn at a cooler, slower rate and, according to the sources that I could find, produce much less soot than paraffin wax candles. Soy candle drippings are easily cleaned up with soap and water. My understanding is that anything that can burn, can produce unused carbon particulate matter. Soy candles are no exception. My internet research turned up the same conclusion. Any websites that made the “soy” is less toxic claim have been websites that sell candles. Hardly unbiased. Most sources that I read that attempt an unbiased opinion based on science say there is no real difference between the soot produced from soy candles and the soot produced from paraffin candles. All candles will produce soot, and all will produce soot in greater quantities when the wick is too long, or the flame is disturbed away from its normal teardrop shape. A tangible benefit to beeswax and soy candles is they both come from a renewable resource; whereas paraffin comes from crude oil which is non renewable. Some sites I visited claimed soot from parafin candles is equivalent to burning diesel fuel in your home; while others say there is no difference. The great debate continues. Beeswax candles produce a natural “honey” scent without the addition of chemicals. These are what I opt for in my home.

Here is my conclusion, based on the research: all three kinds of candles produce soot which can clog air filters and deposit particulate matter into the indoor environment. Minimize the soot produced by trimming the wick to 1/4 inch, taking care to disturb the flame as little as possible. One of the biggest contributing ingredients to indoor air pollution in candles are their added fragrances. Most companies don’t divulge the exact ingredients that make up their special aromas. As I said above, I like beeswax candles because they naturally produce a honey scent when burned. I still feel uncomfortable burning paraffin candles in my house, simply because it is a non renewable, petroleum product (and the above claim that burning paraffin candles could be the same as burning diesel fuel). My research revealed no conclusive evidence on either side of the equation, but I will continue to burn only beeswax in my home… just in case.

Maybe you want to create a delightful fragrance without burning anything? Check out this site for ideas.

Check out more tips for examining our impact on our planet at Cirque du Vert.

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