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The health hazards of burning candles

Snuff it out

Q: My sister says candles are hazardous to your health. Is this true?

Dr. Wright: Most candles contain paraffin. Paraffin is made from the sludge at the bottom of barrels of crude oil, which is then treated and bleached with benzene and other chemical solvents to “clean it up” for use in candles. Paraffin candles put out soot and smoke when you burn them along with toxins and carcinogens. Since burning petrochemical paraffin smells bad, synthetic fragrance oils are added, many of which are irritating and even toxic themselves when they’re burned. Breathing what paraffin candles give off has been compared to breathing diesel fumes.

And, to make matters worse, the soot, smoke, and chemical residue from “regular” candles can stick to walls, ceilings, and ventilation ducts and gets re-circulated whenever the heating/cooling system is in action, exposing you to these pollutants even when the paraffin candles aren’t burning.

The only candles I know of that don’t cause any of those problems are ones made from beeswax. But here’s the catch: a candle only needs to contain 51 percent beeswax to be labeled as a beeswax candle. The rest can be paraffin (or anything else burnable), so it may not be as easy as picking one up the next time you’re at the mall.

One way to find out is to ask the store clerk to light the candle: 100-percent-beeswax candles have a uniquely fresh smell — which is distinctly different from paraffin.

Beeswax candles can be on the expensive side — at least in comparison to “regular” paraffin candles. But beeswax actually burns slower, so you’ll get more for your money than if you opted for the cheaper versions. Plus, the risk you’re avoiding by avoiding paraffin is well worth the few extra cents.