This Little Light of Mine

Each one of us is a light—a candle—in our own little worlds.

Rae Lee Cooper is a registered nurse. She and her husband, Lowell, have two adult married children and three adorable grandchildren. She spent most of her childhood in the Far East and then worked as a missionary with her husband in India for 16 years. She enjoys music, creative arts, cooking, and reading.

It all started when Cathy Flanders began regularly burning candles in her home. She loved the pleasant odors of the scented candles and the ambiance of the soft flames. She had no idea she might be poisoning herself and her family.

Flaming History

Candles have been used for light, to aid travelers at night, and during social and religious celebrations for thousands of years. The ancient Romans are generally recognized as the first to develop candles with wicks. This was accomplished by dipping rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow. Historians have further discovered that the wicks of ancient Chinese candles were made of rice paper. For a wax base, early civilizations often used plants, insects, seeds, and even fruit as ingredients. Early Western cultures made their candles primarily from animal fat, but a major improvement came about in the Middle Ages with the introduction of beeswax candles originating in Europe. Beeswax was highly desired for its pure, clean burn without the usual smoky flame. It also emitted a more desirable odor.

Contemporary candle making underwent great strides in the nineteenth century with the discovery of how to extract stearic acid from animal fatty acids. Thus, stearin wax was developed—a harder wax that was more durable. Paraffin wax, which was introduced in the 1850s, offered a more affordable candle. However, with the development of the light bulb in 1879, the need for candles began to decline.

It was at the onset of the twentieth century that candle popularity started to grow again. The emergence of U.S. oil and meatpacking businesses aided in increasing the byproducts of paraffin and stearic acid—both still basic ingredients of candles. The interest in candles remained steady until about the 1980s, when producers became more creative and candles in a broad variety of sizes, shapes, and colors caught the public eye. Then their popularity increased dramatically as candles became viewed as important household decorative items, mood setters, and gift possibilities. But it was the introduction of scented candles that made the biggest impact.

Dangerous Fumes

Attracted by the variety of scents—including spices, fruit, pine, vanilla, lavender, and herbs—Cathy Flanders, like much of the enamored public, became intrigued with candles whose labels promised to fill the house with lovely fragrances. However, after six months of burning these candles, she began to notice soot damage around her house.

About that same time, 11-year-old Andrew Flanders began having problems in school. His grades fell, and he exhibited unmistakable symptoms of attention deficit disorder. After taking Andrew to the doctor for a checkup, his parents were amazed to hear that the blood test report showed a significant level of lead poisoning in his system. Andrew was immediately sent to live with his aunt until the source of the problem could be resolved. Further testing showed the lead level in the Flanders’ home to be 40 milligrams per square foot—27 times more than is considered a nonthreatening, safe level. Where was all that lead coming from? Ultimately, all indications pointed conclusively to the scented candles.

Beware of the Wick

The cause of the problem in this and similar cases is the wick, which is frequently made with a metal core or is covered with metallic pigment generally composed of lead. These are commonly the wicks of choice, especially in scented candles, because they will firmly stand upright, they burn slower and longer, and they are easy to light. Cotton wicks, although much safer, often go limp and fall over into the wax.

Not all metal-wicked candles contain lead, but a significant number do, and there is no consistent way of knowing which do and which do not. Some safe-wicked candle manufacturers will clearly indicate on an attached label that the candle contains no lead products.

Lead-wicked candles were banned in Australia in September 1999. But in the United States and some other major candle-producing countries, there are no current laws mandating the application of warning labels or prohibiting the manufacturing or importation of health-hazardous candles. Scented candles are an important component in aromatherapy—a type of alternative medicine in which pleasing odors are used to treat illnesses, decrease stress, and aid in relaxation. How ironic that these very same candles can also cause poor indoor air quality, with lead toxins traveling on dust particles and being deposited on furniture and household surfaces, thus precipitating serious health threats to all in the vicinity. Lead poisoning can lead to behavior changes and serious, sometimes fatal, damage to internal organs. Children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems or ongoing lung conditions such as asthma are particularly at risk. The central nervous system of children is particularly sensitive to lead, and exposure can precipitate learning disabilities and behavioral disorders in the child, some of which can be severe and irreversible.

Go ahead and enjoy candles, but be cautious.

1. Avoid supercheap candles.

2. Check for a shiny metal wire inside the wick. If there is no label indicating the wick is lead-free, do not use the candle.

3. Cotton or hemp wicks are considered to be the safest.

4. Do not choose a candle that is greasy to the touch. These are generally slow-burning candles with questionable additives.

5. Imported candles may come from countries that have far different standards regarding the use of chemical compounds in household products. Check the label for information about where a candle was made and, if possible, which materials were used in its production.

6. 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. No candle is completely soot-free because of combustion, but choose candles made from beeswax or soy wax, which do not produce sticky, black, petroleum-based soot.

7. Keep wicks trimmed for more complete combustion. Trim to one-quarter inch.

8. Keep burning candles away from drafts, which can blow toxins into the air and burn up your candle more quickly.

9. On the other hand, do not burn a candle in a small, closed room (such as a bathroom), as toxins can become concentrated (even from safe-wicked candles) and precipitate a health hazard. Choose instead a larger, well-ventilated room.

10. Looking for aromatherapy without the worry of choosing a safe-wicked candle? Put a few drops of scented oil in a diffuser, or add some drops to boiling water.

All candles emit chemicals into the air we breathe. However, in safe-wicked candles, toxic compound emissions are in extremely low concentrations. These candles burned once in a while for special occasions are relatively harmless.

Am I candle?

Each one of us is a light—a candle—in our own little worlds. Every choice we make, each action, the words we speak, our attitudes and habits, all exert a positive or negative influence and reflect on the kind of wick—or spirit—that is deep within us. As we carefully choose the safest wicks to burn in our homes, we must even more carefully choose the best spirit to live in our hearts, one that will shine out the beauty and warmth of love, kindness, and grace (see Matthew 5:14-16 and Proverbs 4:23).

INFORMATION SOURCES: Neil Nedley, M.D., The Lost Art of Thinking, Nedley Publishing, 2011, pp. 195, 196

Rae Lee Cooper is a registered nurse. She and her husband, Lowell, have two adult married children and three adorable grandchildren. She spent most of her childhood in the Far East and then worked as a missionary with her husband in India for 16 years. She enjoys music, creative arts, cooking, and reading.