Candle smoke is bad for you

Take a deep inhaleThere. I went right ahead and said it. Those romantic, glimmering lights in restaurants, pubs, and people’s homes are evil. And they’re proliferating like tiny little nuclear weapons intent on sending you to an early grave. Do I have your attention yet?

On this blog I don’t like to harp on negative subjects, but occasionally I get my hackles up over something that’s wrong that ought to be fixed. And the problem of candles, candles, everywhere is one of those issues. Now, those who know me may say, “Oh, you’re just griping because you’re allergic to candle smoke.” And it’s true, I begin to sniffle within seconds of entering a room with candles burning. Later, I get a headache that lasts for days and occasionally break out in a rash. So, sure, I’m allergic to ’em. But I consider myself lucky compared to all you who are not. You see, I’ve got my own internal alarm that goes off the instant I get exposed to the deadly chemicals in candle smoke. What’s your warning buzzer? Don’t have one? Well read on about what you get for not paying attention to candle smoke. Or maybe I should say, what gets you.

Oil company sludgeFirst of all, most candles today are made from the sludge at the bottom of a barrel of oil. Add a little toxic hydrogen gas to bleach it white and viola! you’ve got paraffin. Stick a wick in it and put it in one of those ridiculous little tealight tins and you’ve got a way to dispose of your unwanted chemical sludge, if you’re a major oil company. You can get gullible consumers to light them up in rooms where they live and breathe while you escape the tyranny of the EPA, which no longer allows you to dump your sludge in the local swamplands. Nice capitalist trick!

The only drawback here is that the consumer is poisoning him/herself and any kids, customers or small animals that share the same room with those candles. Scientific studies have shown that candle flames emit almost exactly the same exhaust gasses and soot as the tailpipes of diesel powered automobiles. The list of deadly components is long, including benzene, a potent inducer of leukemia and other cancers, benzopyrene, one of the strongest carcinogens known, and formaldehyde, which was banned from household insulation materials a few years ago because of the wide variety of deadly effects it had on the human body.

So, I suppose you might ask, “Are you saying, ‘Light up a candle and die’?” Short answer: Yes.

Even though there have not been a lot of scientific studies done, a few government workplace safety studies have reported that diesel exhaust in the work environment is harmful. However, the same oil industry that sells candles in every possible outlet from shopping malls to drugstores, lobbied against enforcement of the findings by OSHA, the government workplace safety watchdog. What was their rationale? They argued successfully that studies clearly showing increased diesel-caused cancer in white rats were not valid for predicting human consequences. Incredible. This is exactly the tack taken but the cigarette industry to delay the ban on smoking in the workplace that brought us fresh air in taverns and restaurants. Different industry, same trick. Same motive: profit, and who cares about people’s health. And, by the way, the air in public places is getting more toxic daily, thanks to the cheap availability of great big plastic bags of those demonic little candles.

I once was sniffling over dinner in a fine Seattle restaurant. The owner of the place came out himself to ask us how our meal tasted. Great, we all agreed, but I kept looking at his face with a question half formed. Did you get that rash all over your face from the candles you are burning on every table and in every wall niche? I held my tongue so as not to spoil the moment, but I probably did him a disservice.

Mark my words. Someday, when enough statistics can be gathered in the post-cigarette era, a link between working in restaurants and pubs, and asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and skin cancer will unveil itself. Right now, the legacy of early death still relates to the old fact that cigarette smoke used to fill the air of public houses. But when the last generation of waiters and waitresses from the pack-a-day times die off and yet the trend of restaurateurs dying younger continues, then the link to candle toxins will be plain to see.

We all should take it upon ourselves to complain to those who foist candles on us everywhere like cigarettes once were: WE WON’T INHALE YOUR POISON ANY MORE!

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes Peyton McKean mystery stories and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
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4 Responses to Candle smoke is bad for you

  1. Eli Arndt says:

    I won’t argue the toxicity but what I do have a possible issue with is overall exposure to and the volume of such gasses as produced by burning candles. I would consider my wife a bit of a candle nut, that said, the candles we burn are usually soy-based or bees wax with more mainstream candles, such as your ominous tea lights, being burned only on occasion and for limited periods of time.

    If in households that are not candle savvy, where they do not seek out healthier candles, I doubt that the average exposure to candle smoke is all that great. I’d also suggest that an afternoon over the grill is likely as damaging to your lungs. Sure, if somebody was a consummate enough candle-user or worked in a candle-heavy environment this might be a concern, but then the alternative is not to do away with candles, but to pursue other, healthier candle options that do not have the same effects.

    To be honest, why any restaurant would waste money on replacing candles when their are so many nice and perfectly believable “candle effect” items out there is beyond me. Even if you factor in the cost of replacing batteries, many of the electronic candle ambiance effects out there are so low power that you will still come out ahead in pure economic terms let alone any health benefits.

    -Eli

    • Tom Hopp says:

      You’re right Eli, that the amount of fumes may vary and in some cases might be small. To someone like me, however, the exquisite sensitivity of an allergic reaction can easily detect the toxins and they’re always there, take it from me. You’re also right that some candles are healthier (I’d say less damaging) than others. And finally you’re right again, there are electronic alternatives. Those little battery-powered things started out looking pretty lame but newer ones are getting that romantic, flickering, warm glow down to a tee — or tealight — I guess you could say. And, given that I’m always on the lookout, I can say I’ve seen a few restaurants without candles that have achieved a great intimate, warm, romantic light at every table or booth by having a very small electric light bulb housed in a tiny lamp with a little orangey-tan or brown shade that gives off that flame-like glow.

  2. Randall Karstetter says:

    Tom, You’re right. Incomplete combustion of parafin produces nothing but bad things. However, you’re going against traditions and human genetics. I read of a study that showed that flickering light, as that from a fireplace or candle, produces neurotransmitters (and I think endorphins) that create a feeling of security and comfort in humans. We come from a long line of humans that selectively benefitted from fire. Breaking that connection won’t be easy. I think that, like cigarettes, the attraction won’t be broken until the Surgeon General comes out against it with studies and case examples. In the meantime, education, by highly respected scientists (include yourself in that group) can start the process. However, keep in mind you will only convince the educated and environment sensitive population. There are still a lot of people who will say, just like with cigarettes, “I’m lighting up my candles anyway, dammit.” So I think you should just be prepared with your activated charcoal gas mask when you go into some establishments. If anyone complains, tell them to take it up with ADA.

    • Tom Hopp says:

      Good point, Randall. Flickering light is soothing. But I’ve seen restaurants achieve that by installing a gas fireplace with a glass front that keeps exhaust gasses from getting into the room. There are ways to get the flicker without the fumes.

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