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EPA: Want Cleaner Air? Throw Out Your Incense and Candles

Sometimes the most soothing household items can be the most polluting. If you choose the wrong candles or scents, you can pollute the indoor air of the best healthy home.

CANDLES AND SCENTS OFTEN SMELL LOVELY, but the EPA found that lead wicks and particulate matter produced by burning candles and incense produce indoor air pollutants. Here is how to test your candles and choose wholesome aromatherapy solutions.

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Here is what the EPA said in a 2001 report:

“The potential indoor air impacts of burning candles and incense have drawn increased attention in recent years. There are three particular areas of concern:

Candles with lead-core wicks have been found on the market and have been shown to be a source of airborne lead when burned. Metal cores are used to stiffen wicks so they will not fall over and extinguish themselves as the surrounding wax melts. Lead was commonly used as a core material until 1974 when the U.S. candle manufacturing industry voluntarily agreed to discontinue use of lead in wicks. However, candles with lead wicks have been found on the market by an academic as well as a consumer protection group study. Most of the candles found that contained lead wicks were imported.

Secondly, under imperfect combustion conditions, candles emit soot and can cause property damage by blackening walls, ceilings, and carpets. There have been an increasing number of complaints regarding black soot deposition in homes in the last decade. Candles are one source of soot. With candles, sooting occurs as a result of incomplete combustion. Candle composition, wick length, and drafty conditions can all affect candle combustion. The amount of soot produced can vary greatly depending on the type of candle. One type of candle can produce as much as 100 times more soot than another.

Thirdly, incense smoke can be a major source of particulate emissions in indoor air. The particulates produced when burning incense can deposit in the respiratory tract. These emissions may contain contaminants that can cause a variety of health effects, including mutagenic effects and airborne dermatitis.”

What kind of candles should we burn? Is there a safe incense?

Fortunately, lead wicks may be less of a problem, at least for U.S.-made candles. The EPA banned lead wicks in 2003. We can’t always be sure about imported candles. And there are no rules banning paraffin as a candle wax or synthetic oils.

Candle Hygiene

With any candle, there is candle hygiene. Wicks should be trimmed to about to about a quarter-inch long, and candles should be kept out of drafts.

If you already have candles and don’t know if they make soot. Take your candles to the bathroom, close off the register. Take white plastic or foam (maybe white plastic destined for recycling) plates and place around the lit candle. Make sure the candle is in a holder and not hear anything that can catch fire (candles left burning unattended are a major source of home fires). Close the bathroom door and wait about a half hour. If there is soot on the plates, the candle is the cause.

Choose soot-free candles -- those that are 100 percent beeswax candles or made from 100 percent vegetable-based waxes (and maybe a little hemp oil).

And instead of incense...

Unless, you burn incense in a really well ventilated area, there will be air quality problems. A better alternative is a diffuser filled with pure, organic, essential scented oil. The ones I like best use wooden skewers or wicks set in a vase with the oil. They are safer, too, because nothing is left burning unattended.

You can also make your own room spray, by blending 10 or so drops to 12 drops of essential oil in a half cup of water. Shake well and place in a spray bottle. A personal favorite is a blend of jasmine, lavender and clove essential oils. The only potential problem arises, if someone is allergic to flowers.

Green America has even more detailed suggestions and product recommendations.

Click to read the entire EPA report.