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Burning Bright

Beeswax and soya candles are a safe alternative to harmful paraffin candles

By Bill Strubbe

While rearranging paintings in her home, Cathy Crystal noticed gray smudges on the wall around the frames. Baffled, she discovered similar gray "ghosting" bordering electrical outlets and air vents. "We don't allow smoking in our house and have a stove exhaust, so it didn't make sense," recalls the California nutritionist. A week later, when lighting a constellation of votives on the mantle before an evening soiree, the source of the mystery soot dawned on her.

In 2001 the American Lung Association issued warnings that candles are a common unrecognized cause of poor indoor air quality. The National Association of Home Builders has received increasing reports implicating candles as a major cause of black soot deposition, which damages home interiors, not to mention skin and lungs. These microscopic particles--smaller than 2.5 microns--are recognized by the EPA as responsible for aggravating respiratory illnesses, especially in children.

Candles, per se, are not problematic; rather, the culprits are paraffin, colorants, synthetic scents, and lead wicks. Paraffin is the last product after asphalt in petroleum refining. The grayish-black sludge is decolored with 100 percent strength bleach, creating dioxins, before further processing. The resulting wax contains a host of toxins, including benzene and toluene, both recognized as possible carcinogens by the EPA. Industry regulations do not require candle manufacturers and retailers to disclose hazardous compounds, or to provide a comprehensive ingredient list, even upon consumer request.

"We do know that there are irritants in the burning of paraffin and petrochemicals," explains Chris Molinari, vice president of global communications at the Aveda gift company, which uses only beeswax and essential oils in its candle products. "And from a sustainability perspective, as a brand, we do not use any materials that are not from a renewable source."

The multibillion dollar candle industry has boomed in the last decade. Fragrance intensity boosts sales, and many manufacturers simply dump in more synthetic oils, then claim dubious aromatherapy benefits. "A lot of big companies are jumping on the bandwagon and saying their products are aromatherapeutic, when they're not," says Cheryl Hoard, president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy. "They're using synthetic fragrances instead of essential oils."

Though U.S. candle makers voluntarily agreed 25 years ago to prohibit lead-core wicks, some imported candles still contain the toxic metal, the burning of which results in airborne lead particles that can be respired. A study conducted by the University of Michigan School of Public Health found that burning a candle with a lead-core wick inside a room for an hour can raise to unsafe levels airborne lead particles. (Rub wick tip on paper; if there's a pencil-like mark, toss it.)

But the good news is that candles made from natural wax sources--beeswax, soya, bayberry, and palm--are benign and burn clean. Beeswax, derived from flowers and bees, is nontoxic, naturally aromatic, and when burned emits beneficial negative ions that actually help purify the air. But beeswax supplies are limited, making it expensive.

Recently a renewable, nonpolluting candle wax has entered the market: soya wax. While researching cost-cutting measures for beeswax candles for the Body Shop, candle maker Michael Richard of Iowa created a viable market for what is considered a surplus commodity. "Currently I use only about 2 million pound of soy oil a year, but I hope the amount will increase as the health hazards of paraffin--about 2 to 3 billion pounds annually used in candles--become more well-known," says Richards, who now trains people to become cottage-industry chandlers. "With about 18 billion pounds of soy oil produced every year, it's possible to replace petroleum wax without planting more soy beans."



'Tis the Season to Be Cautious

Based on statistics compiled by the National Fire Prevention Association, over the last decade, candle fires throughout the United States have almost tripled from the 5,460 reported in 1990. In 1999 an estimated 15,040 home fires started by candles were reported to fire departments, resulting in an estimated 102 deaths, 1,473 injuries, and estimated property loss of $278 million.

Not surprisingly, with candle sales peaking during the winter holidays, it's also peak hazard season for home fires. Statistically, fires ignited by candles almost double in December. On Christmas Day in 1999 (the last year data was compiled), five times the average of home fires were reported. The second and third most hazardous fire-risk days are New Years Day and Christmas Eve.

Safety Tips:

* Extinguish all candles when leaving the room or going to sleep.

* Keep candles away from flammable materials such as books, clothing, Christmas trees, decorations, etc.

* Don't place lit candles in windows, where blinds and curtains can come in contact with them.

* Use candle holders that are sturdy, won't tip over easily, are made from nonflammable material, and are large enough to collect dripping wax.

* Place candle holders on a sturdy, uncluttered surface and do not put them where children or pets can knock them over.

* Keep candle wicks trimmed to one-quarter inch, and extinguish taper and pillar candles when they burn to within two inches of the holder. Votives and containers should be extinguished before the last half-inch of wax melts.

* Avoid using candles with combustible items (such as dried flowers) embedded in them.

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From the November 13-19, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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