Candlelit Dinners Spark Romance — and Toxins

Chemicals found in candles linked to cancer

You may be ingesting more during those romantic, candlelit dinners than a nice cabernet and a lamb chop. Side of benzene, anyone?

According to new research presented today at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, that’s what you might get, along with a dollop of toluene and a dash of ketones. 


When scientists from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg tested paraffin-based candles in a specially built chamber, they found that burning such candles released these toxic chemicals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, toluene can affect the nervous system and, inhaled in high doses by pregnant women, can create birth defects. Benzene has been linked to cancer, especially leukemia.

So does this mean you should stop worrying about the cholesterol in the lamb chop and start fretting about the candles? Not necessarily.

Amid Hamidi, a student researcher working under the direction of Ruhullah Massoudi, a professor in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences, said that “each time a candle is burned, if it is paraffin, which is basically petroleum-based, it provides really nasty chemicals in the emissions.” Hamidi, who presented the findings, told that candles made of vegetable-based wax emitted no toxic chemicals in their tests.

The candle industry, which sells the warm glow, not the toxins, insisted that either type is safe.

Barbara Miller, spokesperson for the National Candle Association, explained that all waxes “burn about the same way … When you burn a candle properly, you should get carbon dioxide and water vapor.”

Rob Harrington, a scientist with Illinois-based candle-maker Blyth Incorporated, said the industry mounted a study of its own in 2007. The tests, performed in a German lab, detected no benzene from paraffin candles. Amounts of other toxic chemicals were far below maximum permissible concentrations as defined by established air quality standards. There was no practical difference between paraffin-based and vegetable-based candles, he said. 

The industry has an obvious interest in keeping the focus squarely on the romance. But it also pointed out that Massoudi and Hamidi are financed by a Department of Agriculture grant under the project title “Soybean Candles for Healthy Life and Well-Being” — part of a grant system meant to fund research that could boost farm product sales. 

Hamidi admitted that burning a paraffin candle once in awhile is not necessarily going to give anybody cancer, but he argued that “our worry is for the public health. Candles are so widespread, if a human is exposed from the time they are 1 year old, to, say 50 years old, well, candles may be one of the things that contribute” to health problems.

Concern over paraffin candles and indoor air pollution is not entirely unwarranted. “We have always had strong concerns about candles,” Bob Thompson, chief of Indoor Environments Air Research for the Environmental Protection Agency said.

But the EPA does not set standards for candle emissions and isn’t likely to do so in a near future.

European studies of paraffin candle emissions conflict, and, Thompson said, there is very little independent research being conducted in the U.S. “We just do not know not enough,” he said.

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