While candles can set a romantic mood or create a festive atmosphere—often with some pretty amazing smells to boot—they can also wreak havoc on your health. Sure, it’s not a fun thought. After all, they come in so many sizes and colors, their intricate patterns almost too pretty to burn, and often leave the house smelling like a rose garden (or cookie dough, if that’s your thing). But the reality is that many of them also have a dangerous downside. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe.
Avoid fires by choosing flameless candles
The most obvious problem is that, left unattended, candles can cause fires. Many people assume it won’t happen to them, but all it takes is drifting off to sleep while a candle flickers too close to a bed sheet or a draft puts the flame closer to curtains. In fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association, over 10,000 home fires in the United States were started by candles between 2007 and 2011. More than 100 deaths, over 900 injuries and $418 million in direct property damage occurred as a result.
Fight poor air quality by not using metal wicks
If you do burn real candles, be sure to monitor them, and also consider using ones that do not have a metal wire inside the wick. Experts say that the lead emitted from metal wicks can instigate health problems like respiratory ailments or neurological issues. “Candles are fast becoming one of the most common unrecognized causes of poor indoor air quality,” says Diane Walsh Astry, Executive Director of the Health House Project (an American Lung Association education project in St. Paul, Minnesota).
Lead deposits in homes due to use of candles with metal wicks are a real concern; one Texas family discovered they had 27 times the lead limit allowed in Housing and Urban Development homes. It’s no coincidence that for six months, they were burning candles with metal wicks which resulted in visible soot on their walls. In the end, their young child was found to have elevated levels of lead in his blood, something the family feels contributed to changes in his learning ability and waning attention span. Even their doctor told them to get rid of the candles.
Studies have even been conducted to prove that wire wicks can be detrimental to health. When such candles are burned in a small room for hours at a time, toxins are emitted and are even more hazardous when air circulation is not sufficient (e.g. due to a closed door and closed windows).
Whenever possible, buy candles with a cotton wick, trimming it often to ensure it doesn’t fall over and extinguish itself in the wax. Further, don’t constantly have candles lit in your house, and make sure they’re not kept in an enclosed room when lit.
Stop exposure to toxins by purchasing clean-burning candles
Finally, look for candles made from soy or beeswax. They’re more natural, longer-lasting, and contain fewer chemicals than more traditional, paraffin-based candles, which means they don’t give off as much pollution. These types of candles are clean-burning; they don’t emit chemicals that can destroy health. The more traditional ones, on the other hand, have been found to release the likes of benzene and toluene into the air.
Toluene, as explained by the Environmental Protection Agency, is found in synthetic fragrances as well as paint thinners, cigarette smoke and a gasoline additive. The agency states that the central nervous system can be affected by toluene; everything from sleepiness to lung, liver and kidney problems can result from toluene exposure.
Enjoy candles, but do so as safely as possible. Keep an eye on them when they’re burning, and always choose wicks that do not have a metal core. Choose soy or beeswax wherever possible. Or, better yet, opt for flameless candles that keep your environment entirely free of harmful chemicals.