Using Candles with Care is more than Fire Safety
Use Candles with Care is this year’s message for Fire Protection Week. The number of fires related to candles is disturbing. During 2002, candles in U.S. homes caused 18,000 structure fires, 130 civilian deaths, 1,350 civilian injuries, and $333 million in property damage.
Along with fire hazards, an emerging problem is soot from candles. Soot is unburned matter from the candle. King Charles of England instituted an indoor air quality program in the 1600's. It required ceiling heights of over 10 feet and windows higher than they were wide. The reason for this policy: high ceilings helped prevent health problems caused by candle soot.
Scented candles are the major soot-causing culprits. Paraffin is a petroleum product and even fragrances can be petroleum-based synthetics. Soot from petroleum based candles is toxic, and the amount of soot produced varies greatly from candle to candle. Soot particles can travel deep into the lungs leaving those with asthma, compromised immune systems, and heart or lung disease particularly vulnerable. In addition, other chemicals often used for fragrance are toxic as well.
How a candle burns also contributes to how much soot it produces. Small, stable flames produce less than large flickering flames. Drafts cause sporadic sooting and distribute soot through the air. Candles in glass containers produce more soot because the container disturbs the flame shape and causes unsteady air flow around the candle. In addition, candles that are snuffed or blown out produce more soot than those put out by cutting off the tip of the wick.
Testing has also shown that almost one third of the wire-type wicks contain lead. Lead has been removed from such things as gasoline and paint, but until recently candles represented an unrecognized source of lead. Though U.S. manufacturers are now prohibited from using wicking that contains lead, it is present in the U.S. candle market due to foreign imports.
When choosing candles remember these few tips:
- Not all candles, even scented candles, cause hazardous conditions. But since labels don't tell us which ones are safe, stay clear of shiny metal inside-the-candle wicks. Choose cotton wicking when possible.
- Trim wicks to one-quarter inch for clean burning, and keep candles out of drafts.
- Avoid slow-burning candles with additives. These candles will feel greasy to the touch. Purchase soy or pure beeswax candles for a healthier option.
- For aromatherapy, choose only natural plant-based essential oils and place a few drops in a diffuser, heat a few diluted drops in a microwave, or put the drops into boiling water.
As you choose your candles strive to find a safe balance between indoor air quality and fire safety, and above all remember to use your candles with care.
This column was submitted by Vicki Schmidt, a GIS Environmental Specialist with the Maine DEP's Bureau of Land and Water Quality. She is also a State Fire Instructor with Maine Fire Training & Education and a firefighter on the Buckfield Fire Dept.
In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
E-mail your environmental questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or send them to In Our Back Yard, Maine DEP, 17 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.
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