Health Hazards Of Paraffin Candles

What home during the holidays doesn’t flicker with candles to herald in the season? A Thanksgiving table centerpiece ablaze above the turkey; a trio of red candles nestled among evergreen boughs on the mantel; a clutch of votives in the bathroom; a Hanukah Menorah burning bright…

So pretty and lovely, but you may be better off in blowing them out. Unless they’re made from beeswax or vegetable oil, those thousand points of light are toxic for your home, your health and for your children.

Lungs, Children and Your Home

While rearranging paintings her home, Cathy Crystal noticed gray smudges on the wall around the frames. Baffled, she discovered similar gray “ghosting” bordering the 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 nutritionist in Santa Cruz, California. A week later, when lighting a constellation of candles 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 (BSD) that damages home interiors and contents, 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.

The State of California, under its Proposition 65 Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, identified a host of toxins in paraffin — acetone, 2-butanone, carbon disulfide, carbon tetrachloride, cresol, chlorobenzene, carbon monoxide, cyclopentene, ethylbenzene, mercury, styrene, tetrachloroethene, xylene, and toluene and benzene, the last two identified by the EPA as possible human carcinogens. Due to lack of regulations, candle manufacturers and retailers are not required to list or disclose hazardous, toxic or carcinogenic compounds used in their products, much less provide a comprehensive ingredient list, nor do they have to supply a list of ingredients upon consumer requests.

Paraffin and Scents and Wicks — Oh My!

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 de-colored with 100% strength bleach — creating environmentally harmful dioxins — then further processed using more carcinogenic chemicals, colored with synthetic colorants, and often artificially scented with chemicals producing CFCs (the gases eroding the ozone layer and leading to the greenhouse effect).

Chris Molinari is the Vice President of Global Communications at Aveda, Inc, a well-respected manufacturer of environmentally responsible, pure plant and natural beauty products. “We know that there are irritants in the burning of paraffin and petrochemicals,” said Molinari, “which is why Aveda uses only beeswax and essential oils in their candle products. From a sustainability standpoint, we do not use any materials that are not from a renewable source.”

The National Candle Associations (NCA) contradicts these finding by insisting that paraffin burns clean. The NCA website ( states: “When a candle burns, the flame ‘consumes’ the wax to produce water vapor and carbon dioxide, the same harmless by-products humans produce when exhaling. This is true for all types of candle waxes.” The site also claims that, “All types of quality candle waxes perform well, burning cleanly and safely when formulated and used properly.”

The multi-billion dollar candle industry has boomed in the last decade. Fragrance intensity boosts candle sales, so manufacturers dump increasing amounts of synthetic scented oils — some unsuited for combustion — into their wax mixtures. “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.”

Another health hazard can be the wicks. Maryanne McDermott, executive vice president of the National Candle Association, said that U.S. candlemakers voluntarily agreed 25 years ago to prohibit lead core wicks. (Some contain zinc or tin wicks, which helps the wick to stand up). But some candles — primarily foreign imports — sold in the USA still use lead wicks which results in lead particles being emitted into the air. To determine if a metal wick has a lead-core, rub a piece of paper on the tip of the wick. If it leaves a grey pencil-like mark then its lead. A study done by University of Michigan School of Public Health found that burning a candle with a lead core wick for an hour can raise lead poisoning inside a home to unsafe levels.

Beeswax and Soy and Palm — Oh Yes!

Beeswax is a 100% all-natural fuel derived from Mother Nature’s flowers. It is non-toxic, naturally aromatic, and is the only fuel that emits beneficial negative ions when burned, (they are what produce that calming feeling you experience walking in a forest or at the ocean), thereby actually cleaning your surroundings by removing positively-charged particles of dust, dust-mite debris, pollen, mold, mildew, toxic emissions emitting from rugs, paint, and construction materials. But there is a limited supply of beeswax — just how many bee hives are there in the world? — and it is expensive.

Recently a new, renewable, and non-polluting source of candle material has been seen on the market. Michael Richards had been making candles for about 12 years, and a few years back, when one of his clients, the Body Shop, requested cost-cutting measures on their beeswax candles, he began experimenting with vegetable-based waxes. Still ignorant of the health hazards of paraffin, he began working with the Soy Bean Council of Iowa (which produces about 25% of soybeans in the USA) and eventually created a new and viable market for what had become a surplus item. Richards currently uses about two million pound of soy oil a year, but hopes that the amount of soy oil will increase as the health hazards of paraffin become more well known.

“About 18 billion pounds of soy oil are produced every year, so we have the capacity to replace petroleum wax without having to plant more soy beans,” Richards said, explaining that about 8 to 10 billion pounds of paraffin is used annually in the USA. 80% of the industry is controlled by three companies: about 33% goes for candles and the rest in milk cartons, food packaging, wax paper, etc.

“What we’re part of is a much bigger revolution. Many, if not most, of the products we now make from petroleum will be replaced within 15 years by plant based products,” asserts Richards.

In 2000, after Richards discovered that paraffin was toxic, he did a test by burning the highest quality paraffin candles, but they still generated considerable soot. Beeswax and soya burned very efficiently and produced little measurable soot. When Richards began to publicly speak out, the National Candle Association sent several letters to Richards threatening legal action and claiming he has no scientific basis for disparaging paraffin.

“Now they’re sending similar letters to my wax customers threatening them,” said Richards, who no longer manufactures candles, but now runs the Candle College where people train to become cottage industry chandlers. Since October 2002, about 50 new chandlers have set up shop around the country.

There is little argument that beeswax is the very best, but because of the limited supply and high cost, soya wax is turning out to be a healthy and inexpensive second. While a beeswax votive might cost $2 and a paraffin one about 50 cents, a soya votive would cost about 55 cents. But, Richards says, soya candles burn about 25% longer. “Soya candles comprise only about 1% of the market. They’re a little more expensive than paraffin, but as we educated consumers and manufacturers capture more of the market, the price will even out.”

For more information and to buy cleaner burning candles:

Phone: 641-568-3689
Mike and Melanie Throne
49524A 150th Avenue
Scarville, IA 50473

Soybean Candle Factory
Phone: 800-424-3626
PO Box 463
9 Main Street, Suite F
Manchaug, MA 01526

Lights of the Prairie
Phone: 605-758-2485
15680 440th Avenue
Wallace, SD 57272

Ashley’s Garden
Phone: 870-863-8878
102 Ashley Lane
El Dorado, AR 71730

Soya Wax Candles
Phone: 319-363-1664
Cedar Rapids, IA

History of Candlemaking

Though the ancient Egyptians used rushlights, or torches, made by soaking the pithy core of reeds in molten tallow, the Romans are credited with developing the wick candle, using it to aid night travelers, and lighting homes and places of worship. Like the Egyptians, the Romans relied on tallow, gathered from cattle or sheep suet.

In the Middle Ages beeswax, secreted by bees to make their honeycombs, was introduced. Beeswax was a marked improvement over tallow because it did not produce a smoky flame or emit an acrid odor when burned. Instead, beeswax candles burned pure and clean. However, because of the expense, only the wealthy could afford them.

American colonial women discovered that boiling the grayish-green bayberries produced a sweet-smelling wax that burned clean. However, extracting the wax from the bayberries was extremely tedious, and its use was not widespread.

The growth of the whaling industry in the late 18th century created a new and plentiful fuel: spermaceti, a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil. Like beeswax, spermaceti did not elicit a repugnant odor, was harder than both tallow and beeswax, and it did not soften or bend in the summer heat.

In 1834, inventor Joseph Morgan introduced a machine which allowed continuous production of molded — as opposed to traditional dipped — candles by employing a cylinder featuring a movable piston that ejected candles as they solidified.

In 1850, paraffin wax, processed by distilling residues from crude petroleum refining, became the major ingredient in candlemaking. Paraffin was more economical than any preceding fuel, but paraffin’s low melting point threatened its popularity. However, the animal slaughter industry saved the day. Hard and durable, stearic acid — (yes, all you vegetarians are inhaling animals products) — was added to paraffin to raise its melting point. In the last ten years, alternative vegetable sources such as soybean and palm wax are being used.

With the advent of gas lamps and then the electric bulb, candles were used primarily for decoration and emergencies. Today, candles symbolize celebration, mark romance, define ceremony, and accent decor — continuing to cast a warm glow for all to enjoy. — Bill Strubbe