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Light Up the Holidays

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I'm sitting comfortably in a living room surrounded by festive decorations, other women and couples, and a wide selection of colourful candles'clearly the holiday season has begun. My girlfriend invited me to this candle-buying party.

I'm sitting comfortably in a living room surrounded by festive decorations, other women and couples, and a wide selection of colourful candles-clearly the holiday season has begun. My girlfriend invited me to this candle-buying party. She turns to me. "These will make perfect gifts," she says, eyeing a cluster of silver and gold votives.

What better gift to give at this time of year than candles, available in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and scents. But behind their soothing light and sweet aroma, some candles pose a serious risk to your health and home. Some candles are downright hazardous.

Lead and VOCs

Metals such as lead and zinc are added to candlewicks to make them rigid and to provide a longer burn. When such candles are lit, the metal in the wick vaporizes into the air and ends up as dust on surfaces like plastic and carpets. Contamination occurs through breathing in the air and handling things in the room. This is especially a concern for young children who sometimes place objects in their mouth and for unborn babies whose mothers inhale contaminated air or touch tainted surfaces. Pregnant women and parents should take extra care when choosing candles.

Lead exposure is dangerous, and has even been linked to the decline of the Roman Empire. The ruling class frequently used objects containing lead and commonly added "sapa" to their food and drink, a sweetener heavily contaminated with lead as it was boiled down in lead vessels.

Effects of lead exposure include damage to the kidneys and nervous system, loss of memory, and impaired intellectual development. Lead is known to be one of the most dangerous environmental risks to children's health. Some candles emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as cancer-causing benzene, acetone, and toluene. Scented and decorative candles are most likely to contain VOCs.

Regulations against metal-core wicks became effective in the United States in 2003, with a nation-wide ban imposed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. As part of its Lead Risk Reduction Strategy, Health Canada is currently imposing a ban on the import, advertisement, and sale of candles containing lead wicks in excess of 600 parts per million.

Beeswax is Better

Beeswax candles are natural, safe alternatives to candles that may contain lead or VOCs. In ancient times, beeswax was so rare it was used as currency. Now, it's used as an adhesive and in printing, lip balm, and candles. Pure beeswax candles burn cleaner and hotter than conventional candles, contain no toxic byproducts, and emit negative ions while burning. Negative ions are known to rid allergens from the air and induce a feeling of alertness by balancing serotonin in the body. Beeswax is all natural, so it makes sense that most manufacturers of beeswax candles insist on no lead or zinc in their candlewicks.

Luckily, the salesperson hosting my first candle party confirmed the candlewicks contained no metal. And there were a couple of beeswax candle styles to choose from. This holiday season be sure to choose your festive candles wisely and give safe gifts.

Getting the Lead Out

Test candles you already own for lead-core wicks:

  • Remove wax from the tip of the candlewick.
  • Separate the fibre strands to find the metallic core.

If a metallic core exists, rub it on a piece of white paper. If the metallic core leaves a gray mark on the paper, it is most likely made of lead. Do not burn the candle, and, if possible, return it to the store where you purchased it.

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