A Burning Dilemma

Aromatic Products May Pollute Indoor Air and Your Health

The same health-conscious homeowner who would never dream of allowing cigarette smoke inside the house might be burning aromatherapy candles with the idea that they promote a healthy, relaxing atmosphere. But burning candles could actually have the opposite effect: Scientific testing has shown that candles can emit pollutants such as acetone, benzene, lead, soot and particulate matter.

ILLUSTRATION: Lisa Blackshear

Cathy Flanders of Plano, Texas found out the hard way that candles can cause indoor air pollution. Flanders experienced a phenomenon known as “black soot deposition” after burning candles sold by a popular retailer. “Things started looking gray to me,” Flanders says. “There was a dark film around electrical outlets, the refrigerator, the air conditioning vents and on plastic materials such as computer screens.”

Ron Bailey, vice president of Bailey Engineering Corporation, was commissioned to investigate the Flanders’ home. Testing revealed that burning aromatic candles were releasing significant quantities of soot and volatile organic compounds. The core wicks of the candles were found to be made of lead.

The Flanders aren’t alone in their experience. Testing has implicated candles in a number of cases of black soot deposition in homes and student dormitories across the country. “We’ve had at least three people who talked about waking up at night with a black ring around the nostrils,” says Bailey. “One was sleeping with a surgical mask because she had noticed the problem, and didn’t know where it was coming from.”

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has been receiving an increasing number of reports about black soot deposition. Dan Cautley, a research engineer with the NAHB Research Center, says a prime suspect is the increased use of candles and other indoor combustible materials including incense, potpourri and oil lamps.
“Since seven out of 10 homes burn candles on a regular basis, according to a study done by Smith and Kline, this issue is extremely far-reaching and has the potential for affecting millions of homes,” states an NAHB bulletin.

According to Ken Giles, spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), any product that is combusted indoors can create indoor air quality problems—including wood-burning stoves, fireplaces, and natural gas or kerosene appliances not properly vented. Only recently have candles also become a concern. “We hear that many lower-quality candles being manufactured now produce more soot than 20 years ago,” says Cautley. “This has to do with different types of waxes, aromatic oils and wick types. If the wick doesn’t burn at the same rate the wax disappears, the wick will get longer and typically the candle will produce more soot.”

Maryanne McDermott, executive vice president of the National Candle Association, says U.S. candlemakers voluntarily discontinued using lead core wicks many years ago. “Most of the U.S. manufacturers are very careful about the quality of their production,” McDermott adds. “I would think these candles causing problems were imported, instead of domestically produced.”

But Bailey notes that both domestic and imported candles are a concern. Some, but not all, of the candles implicated are scented. Other factors to pay attention to include poor candle design and use of improper materials. How the candles are used and maintained are also important. “Candles shouldn’t be burned in drafts,” McDermott claims. “And candle wicks should be trimmed. A lot of people don’t do that. The candle will burn better if wicks are trimmed to a half-inch or quarter-inch before they are burned again.” She adds that candles made with beeswax burn cleaner than those made with paraffin wax, a petroleum product.

Fragrant Frauds

Jeffrey Schiller, founder of the International Aromatherapy and Herb Association, says a lot of deception surrounds aromatherapy products—and not just candles. In particular, essential oils—natural, botanical oils emaniting odor of the plant it was derived from and commonly used in perfumes—have been left out of the mix in many aromatherapy-labeled products. “People need to check out books from the library and educate themselves,” Schiller says. “I look at all of the ingredients and check for purity. So if there are any chemicals in there that I don’t recognize, I don’t buy the product.”

Such suggestions are helpful for buying most aromatherapy products, but candlemakers aren’t required to list ingredients, making it more difficult for consumers to know which candles are safe. Schiller adds that candles aren’t the best way to put aromas in the air, anyhow. A diffuser or nebulizer (atomizer) is a better option, he says.
Aromatherapy sales of all types have boomed in recent years, but industry leaders say that much of what is being sold as aromatherapy doesn’t contain essential oils, is adulterated or diluted, or isn’t natural. “A lot of big companies are jumping on the bandwagon and saying their products are aromatherapeutic, when they’re not,” says Cheryl Hoard, president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). “They are using synthetic fragrances instead of essential oils. NAHA is very actively involved with educating the public and manufacturers about true aromatherapy.” The group is also developing quality standards for a “True Aromatherapy Product” seal that will help guide consumers.

Another issue surrounding aromatherapy is labeling. Not all claims, such as products that claim to be aphrodisiacs, are backed by science. Mindy Green, director of educational services for the Herb Research Foundation, says aromatherapy companies need to be as responsible as herb companies regarding product labels. She believes companies would be wise to follow the guidelines of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) passed in 1994 that governs label claims for dietary supplements, including herbs, if indeed they are making therapeutic claims.

“Certainly there are a lot of products out there, including dietary supplements, that make claims not in compliance with DSHEA,” Green says. “It’s really in the manufacturers’ own best interests to follow those guidelines. Many in aromatherapy are trying to discuss what they can do to be responsible within the industry so, like the herb industry, they can be self-regulated. But it’s hard because there is always that one unscrupulous vendor who makes the whole industry look bad.”

As with the herbal supplement market, many of the plants used to make essential oils for aromatherapy are gathered from the wild. Issues of sustainability concerning the two most popular scents, rosewood and sandalwood, have been questioned. Green says some botanists have advocated not purchasing rosewood products because the tree is being decimated along the river corridors where it is harvested in Brazil. Others argue that the tree is not rare farther back in the forest. Some companies claim to be using rosewood being sustainably-grown and ethically-harvested. Sandalwood faces similar problems. “Sandalwood is of concern because it takes so long to grow, and there was a big fire in 1997 in the sandalwood forests in India,” Green explains. “But, a

gain, you will find companies that say they use a small farmer using sustainable growing and ethical harvesting practices. Although many of the essential oil herbs are wildcrafted, a lot are planted each year, too. And that is what we really want to see: sustainable growing with organic farming methods.”

As more and more aromatherapy products surface, consumers will be increasingly burdened with the task of deciding which are healthful and which do harm.