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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Aromatic Candles

Air Date: Week of

Aromatic candles are more popular than ever, but some new research is raising safety concerns. Studies have found that lead and other compounds in candle wicks and wax can pollute indoor air. Bill Zeeble reports from Dallas.


CURWOOD: This is Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The candle business is, well, hot these days. According to the National Candle Association, annual sales in the U. S. are at about $2. 5 billion and rising. Almost half comes from scented candle sales, thanks to interest in aromatherapy. But some new research is raising some serious concerns about safety. In the fashionable North Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas, there's a family living what they call a three-year nightmare. And they blame it on aromatic candles. From member station KERA in Dallas , Bill Zeeble reports.


ZEEBLE: I'm Bill Zeeble.

FLANDERS: Tim Flanders. Come on in.

ZEEBLE: Cathy and Kip Flanders, with their 14-year-old son Andrew and two cats, have lived in their Plano home nearly 16 years. Framed needlepoint pieces and family heirlooms fill the house and flowered paper walls. The aroma of potpourri permeates the home. But so does something else: an unpleasant, almost imperceptible gray-black powder they didn't really notice until three years ago. Kip Flanders says he, his wife, and her grandmother all had colds at the time.

FLANDERS: This was just shocking to me. It's just so -- ugh sounding. But I remember blowing my nose, and my mucus was dark. And I thought wow, there's something really wrong with me. This is kind of scary. And I mentioned it to my wife, also, and she said she and her grandmother were experiencing the exact same thing.

ZEEBLE: What were the odds, they thought, of their all showing the same symptoms? Then, Kip Flanders says they noticed soot on a white bathrobe, around air vents, on the bottom of white socks that had only tracked across apparently clean carpet. Kip Flanders says soot insidiously appeared like cobwebs.

K. FLANDERS: Everything you see here is penetrated with this submicron particulate matter. All of our furniture, all of our rugs, all of our clothing. Many things that we've collected over the years, ruined inside our home. Literally.


ZEEBLE: Kip Flanders pounds a sofa pillow, raising a small black cloud.


K. FLANDERS: You see it going out, just like any pillow. I just saw it.


ZEEBLE: The Flanders had burned aromatic candles in their home for years, three to four at a time in different rooms for roughly three hours a day, with no apparent problems. But after seeing soot, a test by a local lab revealed it came from the candles.

EDMOND: She must have gotten a batch of candles from hell, because they apparently caused significant damage. ZEEBLE: J. C. Edmond with the General Wax Company has been in the candle business 35 years. Representing the National Candle Association, he says people can safely burn candles if they follow directions stuck on the bottom of every one. Burn them away from drafts, children, and flammable items. And keep an eye on them. The Flanders says they followed the rules.

K. FLANDERS: And then we find out as we're going down the road and having them tested, that we released lead into the air of our home. Lead that we breathed in, lead that our child at the time, who was 11, has breathed in. Lead that is pretty much covering everything you see in this home.

ZEEBLE: A second local EPA-approved lab showed the lead came from lead-core wicks, used to keep candles burning above a pool of liquid wax. It estimated lead in the house at 80 times EPA limits. The National Candle Association's J. C. Edmond says it should not have happened, because his members supposedly stopped using leaded wicks a long time ago.

EDMOND: The National Candle Association, and all the manufacturers at that time, voluntarily abandoned the use of a leaded core wick. That was 25 years ago. We encourage our members to comply with our recommendations, but they are voluntary recommendations.

ZEEBLE: A recent Internet search found several suppliers pushing lead-core wicks in spite of--or unaware of--the Candle Association policy. In fact, the nation's largest seller of candle wicks and supplies, Atkins and Pearce in Kentucky, was still selling them a year ago, according to the company's president. But this should not be cause for worry, according to J. C. Edmond.

EDMOND: I would say to be more politically correct and environmentally compliant, we felt that it wasn't going to be difficult for us to abandon the use of leaded core wicks. Candles are safe. If used properly, you can use them without any fear whatsoever that you're going to have problems with them.

ZEEBLE: The Flanders say their house challenges that safety claim. So does recent research. A study from the University of Michigan found lead core wick candles, burning five hours in a closed room, filled it with 30 times EPA's lead limits. Last month, Australia banned lead wick candles and ordered a continent-wide recall. David Krause, an indoor air quality consultant in Florida, recently tested commonly sold candles and discovered numerous problems.

KRAUSE: [I] found over a dozen different aromatic compounds that are potential carcinogens. [I] identified lead emissions, which we know to be toxic to children. It is believed to cause neurological deficits at very low concentrations.

ZEEBLE: Scientists suspect lead impairs development and mental abilities, especially in children. The Flanders tested their child, and say doctors found only slight elevations of lead in his blood. They tried bringing a class action suit against The Gap, the retailer they bought their candles from, but could not get the class action certified. The Gap says it does not sell lead wick candles any more. But other sellers are out there, and the Flanders are trying to warn buyers. Cathy Flanders has launched an information web site and bulletin board.

C. FLANDERS: And what makes me so mad is that had this product been labeled --

K. FLANDERS: She wouldn't have bought them and burned them.

C. FLANDERS: ... that contains lead, there's no way it would have made it through my front door, much less been burned and floating through the air.

ZEEBLE: The Flanders want labeling on candles so they know what's in the wick and the aromatic wax. Some tests show they contain chemicals including toluene, lymonene, styrene, and, notably, benzene, a carcinogen. Consumers can spot a metal core wick by looking closely at it. But researchers say there is really no way to tell whether it is lead, zinc, or tin. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says it's looking into health concerns raised by aromatic candles, but has made no decisions about them. For Living On Earth, I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas.



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