Scented Candles May Fill Your Home with Lead and Soot

Aromatherapy candles are meant to relax, but they can be full of toxic pollutants

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The health-conscious homeowner who would never dream of allowing cigarette smoke inside the house might burn aromatherapy candles, thinking they promote a healthy, relaxing atmosphere. But candles can emit acetone, benzene, lead, soot, and other pollutants.

Cathy Flanders of Plano, Texas, found out the hard way: “Things started looking gray to me. There was a dark film around electrical outlets, the refrigerator, and the air conditioning vents, and on plastic materials such as computer screens.”

Ron Bailey, vice president of Bailey Engineering Corporation, was hired to investigate the Flanders home. Testing revealed that aromatic candles were releasing significant quantities of volatile organic compounds, and that the core wicks were made of lead.

The Flanders, who filed suit against the retailer, aren't alone. Other cases of what is known as black soot deposition have been darkening homes and dormitories across the country. “We've had at least two people who talked about waking up with a black ring around their nostrils,” says Bailey. “One was sleeping with a surgical mask because she had noticed the problem and didn't know where it was coming from.”

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), such reports are increasing. Dan Cautley, an NAHB Research Center engineer, says that candles and other indoor combustible materials, including incense, potpourri, and oil lamps, are the prime suspects.

“Since seven out of ten homes burn candles on a regular basis, according to a study done by Smith and Kline, this issue is extremely far-reaching and has the potential for affecting millions of homes,” states an NAHB bulletin.

According to Ken Giles, spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, any product combusted indoors can create indoor air quality problems; wood-burning stoves, fireplaces, and natural gas or kerosene appliances that are not properly vented are among the culprits. Only recently have consumers become concerned about candles. “We hear that many lower-quality candles being manufactured now produce more soot than 20 years ago,” says Cautley. “This has to do with different types of waxes, aromatic oils, and wick types. If the wick doesn't burn at the same rate the wax disappears, the wick will get longer and, typically, the candle will produce more soot.”

Maryanne McDermott, executive vice president of the National Candle Association, says U.S. candle makers voluntarily quit using lead wicks many years ago. “Most of the U.S. manufacturers are very careful,” McDermott adds. “I would think these candles causing problems were imported.”

But both domestic and imported candles pose problems. Some, though not all, of the implicated candles are scented. Some are designed poorly or contain improper materials. Beeswax candles burn cleaner than those made with paraffin wax, a petroleum product. Don't burn candles in drafts, McDermott advises, and be sure to trim the wicks.

Aromatherapy-labeled products also may be deceptive, warns Jeffrey Schiller, president of the International Aromatherapy and Herb Association. In particular, essential oils (botanical oils emitting the odor of the plant they were derived from) may be adulterated, diluted, or even absent. “I look at all of the ingredients and check for purity,” Schiller says. “If there are any chemicals in there that I don't recognize, I don't buy the product.”

Candle makers aren't required to list ingredients, making selection harder for consumers. But candles aren't the best way to put aromas in the air, anyhow, says Schiller; a diffuser or nebulizer (atomizer) is a better option.

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy is trying to develop quality standards for a True Aromatherapy Product seal. But even when ingredients are clearly noted, the labeling issue won't be entirely solved. Some products, including aphrodisiacs, make claims on their labels that haven't been scientifically proven. Mindy Green, director of educational services for the Herb Research Foundation, believes aromatherapy companies that make therapeutic claims should follow the guidelines of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, passed in 1994. The act governs label claims for dietary supplements, including herbs.

Many of the plants used to make essential oils are gathered from the wild, which raises sustainability issues. Green says some botanists have advocated not purchasing rosewood products because the tree is being decimated along river corridors in Brazil. Others argue that the tree is common in other areas, and some providers claim they use sustainably grown and ethically harvested rosewood. Sandalwood faces similar problems, says Green: “It takes so long to grow, and there was a big fire in 1997 in the sandalwood forests in India. But, again, you will find companies that say they use a small farmer using sustainable growing and ethical harvesting practices. Although many of the essential oil herbs are wildcrafted, a lot are planted each year, too.”

As more aromatherapy products surface, consumers will need to be increasingly careful in deciding which are healthful and which do harm.

From E Magazine (Nov.-Dec. 1998). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from Box 2047, Marion, OH 43306.

Go For It: How To Test for Soot Deposition:
Light candle in a confined area, such as a bathroom. Place two or three stacks of thin, white, disposable plastic plates around the candle to create a static charge. Close or block heating vents. After 10 minutes to one hour, check for a thin dark film on the top plate of each stack.
Source: Candles and Indoor Air Quality (www.fiscorp.net/iaq)

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy
Box 17622
Boulder, CO 80308
888/ASK-NAHA

International Aromatherapy and Herb Association
3541 W. Acapulco Lane
Phoenix, AZ 85053
602/938-4439

American Alliance of Aromatherapy
Box 309
Depoe Bay, OR 97321
800/809-9850