EarthTalk is a weekly installment from E/The Environmental Magazine.
Dear EarthTalk: I just read an article that said air fresheners contain chemicals that can cause health problems when inhaled. Are scented candles any better? — Leanne Chacksfield, Cincinnati, OH
Like most air fresheners, many scented candles contain and release phthalates, potentially harmful chemicals that have been linked to the disruption of hormonal systems and other health problems in people exposed to them. Burning candles can also emit small amounts of acetaldehyde, formaldehyde and naphthalene, organic chemicals that are also potentially harmful and that can leave nasty black soot deposits on floors and other surfaces.
According to Pamela Lundquist of the nonprofit Children’s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC), this black soot deposit “is primarily made up of elemental carbon, but may also contain phthalates and volatile organic compounds like benzene and toluene, which can cause cancer and neurological damage.”
Children can easily ingest these chemicals if their hands have been wandering and end up in their mouths. The chemicals can lodge deep in the lungs, disrupting the lower respiratory tract, exacerbating existing problems like asthma, and potentially causing other longer term breathing problems.
Despite laws against it, many candlewicks still contain lead, long linked to impaired learning and brain damage in children. Lead dispersed from burning candles can be breathed in and also constitute part of the dreaded black soot deposit. Candles with lead-containing wicks are on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission ban/recall list now (thanks to efforts by nonprofits like U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), but many are still out there on store shelves. Consumers can avoid them by sticking to candles with soft cotton wicks, not stiff, metal ones.
Eco-conscious candle burners should also avoid paraffin-based candles, which are made from waxes derived in the process of refining crude oil and literally consist of fossil-fuel generating hydrocarbons. Unfortunately, the vast majority of commercially available candles are made from paraffin, though many alternatives are now available.
Soy-based candles are a popular choice, as they are made from plant waste and emit less soot than the paraffin variety. Beeswax candles are another nice alternative, as well, especially if you can pick them up at a local farmers’ market. For scented or aromatherapy candles, look for varieties that use only pure plant essential oils instead of synthetic chemicals with unintelligible names. Some leader makers of Earth- and people-friendly candles include Blue Corn Naturals, Honeyflow Farm, Vermont Soy Candles and Aveda.