(WebMD) — When Cathy Flanders, 41, of Plano, Texas, started burning candles for their pleasant smell in the spring of 1997, it never occurred to her she could be poisoning her family.
Three years, a serious illness and a lawsuit later, Flanders has a lesson to share with anyone buying scented candles: Watch out for metal wicks.
Lead emitted by this type of candle is a serious health hazard.
"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.
The Flanders' woes started when Cathy was shopping at a clothing store and spotted some candles whose labels promised to fill her house with the pleasant fragrances of "winter" and "spring." Within six months of burning the candles, she noticed soot damage around her house. But Cathy didn't pinpoint the source of the problem until after Ron Bailey of Bailey Engineering in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, analyzed the Flanders' candles and discovered lead emissions.
Around that time, 11-year-old Andrew Flanders' grades dropped precipitously. His teacher wondered if he had attention deficit disorder. When blood tests revealed an elevated level of lead, the Flanders promptly sent him to live with his aunt. "The lead deposits in our home are such that we could not sell the house if we wanted to," says Flanders. As for the candles, the doctor ordered a total ban. Testing revealed the lead level in the Flanders' home to be 40 milligrams per square foot — 27 times the limit allowed in Housing and Urban Development homes.
The Flanders aren't the only ones falling victim to pleasant-smelling candles with toxic wicks. Candle sales in general have skyrocketed in recent years, according to the National Candle Association in Washington D.C., from $500 million in 1995 to $2.3 billion in 1999. Part of the candle craze may be due to new interest in aroma therapy, a type of alternative medicine in which odors are used for relaxation or to treat illness. Ironically, the very candles sometimes used for aromatherapy can cause serious health problems. The chief culprits are candles with wicks made with metal cores. "Some candle makers use metal-core wicks because cotton wicks are often limp and fall over into the wax, extinguishing the flame," explains Jerome O. Nriagu, Ph.D., a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who has studied scented candles.
Lead poisoning can lead to behavior changes and damage internal organs, especially the kidneys. Cathy's husband, Kip, had his gall bladder removed because of an illness he blames on the candles.
Nriagu measured the lead released from 14 brands of candles. He found that burning four metal-wick candles for two hours can result in airborne lead concentrations that pose a threat to human health. People with weak immune systems, including children and the elderly, are particularly at risk. "Besides breathing lead fumes, children can be exposed to even more lead that is deposited on the floor, furniture and walls because they often put their hands in their mouths," says Nriagu. After similar research in Australia, lead wicks in candles were banned there in September 1999. But despite the urging of experts like Nriagu, the candles are still legal in the United States. Not all candles — or even all scented candles — cause hazardous pollution. But since labels won't tell which ones are safe, Astry and other candle experts offer this advice:
Watch out for shiny metal wire inside the wicks of candles. Opt for pure paper or cotton instead.
Keep wicks trimmed to one-quarter inch for more complete combustion, and keep candles out of drafts. Windiness blows more toxins into the air and causes inefficient burning.
Watch out for slow-burning candles with additives. (These candles often feel greasy to the touch.) Instead, look for pure beeswax candles, which emit less pollution.
For aromatherapy, put a few drops of scented oil in a defuser — a tray made to fit on a lightbulb. Or you can put the drops into some boiling water.
Don't use candles in jars when the candle leaves a soot ring on the jar's lip. The soot may be an indication of lead dust.
Andrew Flanders, now 14, has moved back home. And the family is still hopeful their lawsuit will win compensation from the store that sold them the candles. But no matter what the result of the suit, Cathy only wishes she'd had some whiff of the danger when she first spotted those innocent-looking candles among the racks of shirts and pants.
Origins: The article quoted above appeared in the Alternative Health section of CNN's web site on 1 February 2000. It has since spread even further through e-mail.
is true that Cathy Flanders instituted a lawsuit against The Gap (the owners of Banana Republic) over scented candles, but her claim was that soot from the candles damaged her home. The bit about her son's being adversely affected is new to the claim — an extensive 31 March 1999 Wall Street Journal article about her travails made no mention of either the boy or other members of the family experiencing health problems, and the September 1999 attempt to increase the scope of the February 1999 suit and make it a class action also failed to mention the lead poisoning of her son. Possibly that is now a component of the actual claim, but one is left wondering why the child's being sent to live with his aunt because blood tests revealed a high level of lead in his system — and the fact that this lead was tied to candles purchased from a Banana Republic store — was not mentioned by anyone prior to the February 2000 CNN article. (Bear in mind that Flanders says she began using the candles during the Spring of 1997.)
Flander's reasons for bringing suit were described thusly in March 1999:
Today, black soot outlines each beam inside her home. Dark stains surround light fixtures. The once-white drapes are now gray. Even the cobwebs in the corners are black. "You know how old socks get dingy?" says Ms. Flanders as she wipes a family portrait with an alcohol-dipped swab, looking for signs of soot. "That's my house."
The culprit, she believes: those holiday candles. Though her insurance company offered a partial settlement of $20,000 — covering everything from new carpet to replacing the ventilation system — Ms. Flanders sued Gap Inc., owner of Banana Republic, in state court in Dallas, alleging that its candles gave off excessive soot and noxious fumes. Gap, of San Francisco, denies the allegations in court but declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation. In court documents, Gap attorneys suggest Ms. Flanders misused the candles.
In 1999, at least, the focus of this 1997 suit was soot damage to a home, not the health impairment of a child.
Flanders has become "a candle crusader" who runs a newsletter on indoor-air issues that is regularly e-mailed to 1,200 readers, including attorneys, insurers and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researchers.
Whether or not Cathy Flander's claims about her son ring true, it can't be all that good an idea to burn lead-wicked candles. Lead is a nasty
substance, and we're all far better off keeping our distance from it. Burning a material sets it loose in the air, and when that material is lead, a danger is created that goes far beyond that which existed when the lead was contained within a candle wick. Air inside a home is breathed by everyone who lives there, and airborne residue from a candle will land wherever it falls, likely on surfaces that will be touched by the home's residents. Lead from a little wick that no one handles can thus be spread around to the point that contact with it becomes unavoidable.
Most domestic candle manufacturers took lead out of their wicks in the 1970s, though the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 1974 didn't find it a health hazard. Concerns about the potential for harm continue to rage. In February 2000 the Public Citizen's Health Research Group asked the CPSC to immediately ban lead-wick candles and recall any that were still on store shelves.
According to the National Candle Association, the majority of wicks manufactured today in the U.S. are made entirely of cotton, with no metal cores. Those few wicks made with metal are typically zinc-core wicks. All of these wicks are safe, so there is no need to eschew metal wicks, just lead ones.
The National Candle Association says there is an easy way to test whether a candle has a lead core wick: Take an ordinary piece of white paper and rub it on the tip of an un-burnt wick. If the wick leaves a light grey pencil-like mark, it has a lead core. No mark, however, and the candle is lead-free.
Concerns about the effect of candles on health are not solely limited to worries about lead's being loosed into the air — some people have voiced apprehensions over potentially carcinogenic dyes and perfumes used in these products, and yet others fear the consequences of paraffin fumes, asserting "It is never healthy to breathe petroleum products." How valid these misgivings are is anyone's guess.