candles toxins A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo © cosma \ Fotolia.com

The romantic allure of the scented aromatherapy candle has seduced many of us. But unless you're lighting the right candle, you may actually be polluting the air in your home.

Toxic wax

The most common candles are made from paraffin wax, a cheap sludge waste product of the petroleum industry. When paraffin burns, benzene and toluene are released into the air, both known carcinogens. Burning paraffin also produces petrol-carbon soot, carbon particles that don't fully burn but are incandescent, giving the flame its bright white/yellow colour. Unfortunately, this soot has the toxins found in diesel, which ends up as residue on walls, ceilings, fabrics and even in the ventilation system. Those pretty gel candles may be crystal clear but they too are toxic, made from petroleum-based wax or synthetic hydrocarbons. The Canadian and American Lung Associations both caution against prolonged exposure to fragrances and soot for the very young, the elderly and those with respiratory diseases.

Lighting up lead

Even more dangerous are candles with metal-core wicks, favoured because they don't fall over into the wax when lit. But metal wicks actually release lead into the atmosphere. Jerome O. Nriagu, PhD, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Michigan, measured the amount of lead released in 14 different brands of candles with metal-core wicks. He found that burning four metal-wick candles for only two hours resulted in enough airborne lead concentrations to pose a threat to human health, particularly to young children. While banned in Europe, the US and Canada, lead is still widely used in Asia and South America, both major exporters of the aromatherapy candles sold in North American stores. According to the National Candle Association (NCA) based in Washington, DC, most aromatherapy candles rarely contain essential oils. Even if they do, the amounts can never be large enough to produce a true aromatherapy effect. Most US and Canadian manufacturers label their candles for fire safety, but they are not obliged to disclose hazardous, toxic or carcinogenic compounds used as ingredients. It can be difficult to know what you are buying.

Safe candles

The healthiest candles by far are vegetable wax candles made from hydrogenated soy, palm and coconut oils (Editor's note: If possible, you may want to avoid palm oil since rainforests around the world are being destroyed to plant palm oil plantations). Soy wax candles have become popular since soy is both affordable and plentiful. This biodegradable wax burns clean and any residue can be washed away with warm water and soap. Beeswax candles are the most natural candles of all. Since the wax is a by-product of honey, these candles give off a sweet scent and burn clean. Although more expensive than paraffin or soy, beeswax candles last up to three times longer. Pure beeswax candles have a golden to amber colour. There are some beeswax candles that are ivory coloured but these typically have less of a natural honey scent. Be wary of candles labelled blended beeswax since these will often contain paraffin; look instead for the 100 per cent beeswax label.

Safety tips

Be sure to buy candles with paper, cotton or hemp wicks and avoid those with shiny metal wire inside. Trim all wicks to half a centimeter (1/4 inch) to help complete combustion and reduce soot build-up. Keep candles out of drafts since wind makes candles burn faster and puts more toxins into the air. Paraffin candles that are slow-burning (they often feel greasy to the touch) have even more additives and should be avoided altogether. Throw out any candles in jars that have soot rings around the lip of the jar, as this is often an indication of lead dust. For a true aromatherapy experience put a few drops of essential oil into a defuser or into some boiling water.

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