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University of Michigan Study Shows Lead Poisoning in Household Dust from Candles

Scientists are warning people that candles emit harmful disease causing toxins like benzene, styrene, toluene, acetone and particulate matter. Even more disconcerting and dangerous is that many wicks on candles contain the deadly heavy metal LEAD which they emit into the air and which embeds itself into he lungs and blood stream of the bodies living in the house as well as into the furniture and walls of the home. Harmful changes irreversible in some victims.

A University of Michigan School of Public Health study of candles purchased from stores in southeast Michigan shows that some candles on the market today are made with wicks that have either lead or lead cores that emit potentially dangerous levels of lead into the air.

The study is by Dr. Jerome Nriagu, a professor of environmental health sciences, who examined lead emissions from 15 different brands of candles made in the United States, Mexico and China. He also examined the concentration levels of lead that lingered in the air in an enclosed space, such as a room measuring 12 feet by 12 feet and 10 feet high, after one hour and then again for five hours.

Nriagu’s study showed that lead emission rates for the candles ranged between 0.5 and 327 micrograms per hour. After burning the candle for one hour, the lead levels in the air of an enclosed space were estimated to range from 0.04 to 13.1 micrograms per cubic meter, which compares to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommendation of 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter for ambient air. After one hour, five of the candles Nriagu tested emitted unsafe levels of lead into the air that measured greater than 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter.

After five hours, the lead levels in an enclosed space ranged from an estimated 0.21 to 65.3 micrograms per cubic meter. Candles produced in China and the United States released the highest levels of lead into the air.

Regular exposure to lead in this manner in confined spaces could pose health risks to people with weak immune systems, especially children and the elderly, Nriagu said.

“Lead poisoning remains one of the most serious environmental health diseases in this country and other parts of the world. It affects many organ systems and biochemical processes with the most serious sequelae often occurring in the central nervous, cardiovascular and blood systems,” Nriagu said.

Nriagu’s findings are consistent with an Australian study due to be published in the journal Science of the Total Environment. In that study, Mike van Alphen of Lead Sense, an independent consultancy in Australia involved in environmental lead testing, lead exposure investigations and consumer product testing, examined a single brand of candle sold in Australia. The candle he examined released up to 1,130 micrograms of lead per hour.

Studies have shown that the central nervous system of children is particularly sensitive to lead. Some of the most damaging neuropsychological effects of lead poisoning of young children include learning disabilities, reduced psychometric intelligence and behavioral disorders. These effects have been associated with chronic low-level exposure to lead and are believed to be irreversible.

Nriagu’s study measured the rate of lead emission in a laboratory setting using a flux chamber. The lead released as candle fume was collected in nitric acid and analyzed by means of an atomic absorption spectrometer. In addition to measuring emission rates, he calculated concentration levels of lead in the air in an enclosed space after one hour and then again, for five hours.

“The half-life of lead in air obviously would make a difference in terms of it being inhaled. A recent study has shown that particles emitted by candles during a normal burn are sub-micron in size and should remain suspended in the atmosphere for some time. Even if a particle is deposited after only a short trajectory through the atmosphere, it adds to the lead burden in the house dust. Airborne lead represents a hazard in more ways than one,” Nriagu said.

House dust is widely recognized as a primary route of childhood lead exposure through hand-to-mouth activities.

“Assuming that only 50 percent of the lead released is deposited in an area measuring 12 feet by 15 feet (such as a living room), we estimate that the loading of the lead to house dust will exceed the U.S. EPA guideline of 100 micrograms per square meter by burning one of the Chinese candles for a few hours. Our data thus shows that burning leaded candles can result in extensive contamination of the air and house dust with lead,” Nriagu said.


In 2001 the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) concluded that burning paraffin candles emit harmful amounts of toxins in the air that are considered above the excess cancer risk, with multiple exposures.

According to California’s safe drinking water and toxic enforcement act of 1986, there are up to twenty toxins in paraffin candle wax, -substances which are found in paint, lacquer and varnish removers.

In 2005, when the American Lung Association issued a warning to the public about the dangers of paraffin the National Candle Association (NCA) threatened them with legal action. The NCA has also sent letters to others who tried to warn the public.

Paraffin is made from leftover residue of the final petroleum refining process. The wealthy oil industry (which not only sells their by-products to the candle industry but also has four members sitting on the board of the National Candle Association) has assumed a very dominant position in the candle manufacturing business.

Scented Candles and Incense.

Along with candle wicks and certain types of candle wax, aromatics used in fragranced household and aromatherapy products other point-sources of pollution in the home cause health problems in those who are already suffering from neurocognitive, respiratory, cardiovascular and immune disorders, as well as put young children, the elderly, and pets at risk for health disorders. Air pollution and related health problems appears to becoming more common due to the popularity of scented and aromatherapy candles. These candles contain high quantities of fragranced oils that contain additional toxic chemicals which are also inhaled by the home inhabitants causing damage and disease.

Candle-makers are using increasing amounts fragrance oils into their wax mixtures, some of which are not even suitable for combustion. Too much fragrance, in “triple scented candles” can cause the candle wick to mushroom, smoke when burned, and could even cause the candle itself to combust causing shooting flames several inches above the candle. Excessive amounts of fragrance oil contribute to soot (referred to as ghosting, carbon tracking, carbon tracing, and dirty house syndrome ) a concern when candles are burned indoors, it leaves reside on walls and furniture.

Most commercially manufactured fragrances are formulated in a petroleum base, which are toxic properties when burned. Some scented candles have been found to emit  toxins such as  acetone, tetrachloroethene, chlorobenzene, ethylbenzene, styrene, xylene, phenol, cresol, cyclopentene, lead, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and soot.

The candle industry, is not regulated by the government. Candle manufacturers are not required to list or disclose hazardous, toxic or carcinogenic compounds used as ingredients in their products or even place warning labels on their products regarding lead content and emissions so reading the label might not help.


Petro-soot from paraffin candles gives off the same soot as the exhaust of a diesel engine, and is considered just as dangerous as second hand smoke, causing problems from headaches to lung cancer. Paraffin fumes have been found to cause tumors in the kidneys and liver of lab animals.

In the U.S., the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has been receiving an increasing number of reports about black soot deposition due to candles in homes being burned along with other indoor combustible materials including incense, potpourri and oil lamps. The problem is so severe that North America’s largest indoor air quality conference, held in Texas in mid April, featured a workshop that presented the latest research and case studies on the effects of black soot from candles.

Soot is a product of incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels, usually petroleum-based. The soot not only discolors walls and furniture, it can also contaminate your home’s ventilation system. Although the problems resulting from burning candles can be minimized, the basic problem is that candle flames must contain soot or they will not be bright. Soot is the source of the bright white/yellow light that candles emit. A flame without soot will burn blue, like the flame from a gas stove. Soot inhalation can be harmful. Since soot particles are typically very small, they can potentially penetrate the deepest areas of the lung. Researchers caution that the very young, the elderly and those with respiratory diseases like asthma should especially avoid exposure to candle soot.

SOLUTION: use bees wax or non paraffin wax candles which do not have “stay up” lead filled wicks.

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