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Candles sold in Australia have been found to have lead wicks which when burnt can cause lead poisoning or even death. Adelaide lead assessor, Mike van Alphen found that these candles, all imported from China could release 500 to 1000 micrograms of lead per hour into the air (up to tested candles finding some with wick cores of lead wire and others with lead tin and zinc. The lead wick candles were capable of transferring some lead into the air, outdoor air quality is 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic metre of air.

Intensive testing and risk assessment by Lead Sense has identified a consumer product that has a high probability of producing moderate to severe lead poisoning.

The particular* items tested are a 38 cm tall candle having a wick that contains a central wire that is composed of lead (Pb). There are many related candle products having metal wick cores that may or may not present a hazard; the full range of candles has not been tested. Some candles have been found to have wick cores of lead-tin (Pb-Sn) alloy and Zinc (Zn). All candles seen with metal and lead wick cores have been made in China.

The candles tested can burn for over 100 hours and emit over 100,000 micrograms of biologically available, sub-micron size Pb particulate into the air.

Modelling of a number of residential scenarios and detailed exposure assessments readily demonstrate that daily candle* burning of several hours duration would result in elevated blood lead levels. The burning of multiple candles in a confined space for greater than 3-6 hours daily would readily result in severe Pb poisoning.

Particular concern exists in households where candles are used as a long term source of lighting. This of course is readily the case in developing countries and can be the case in the homes of the very poor.

Long-term use of these candles* would result also in the contamination of carpets and soft furnishings in houses by fine particulate Pb. While the short-term high exposure risks are via inhalation, longer term, child lead exposure will be due to high lead-in-dust loadings on surfaces that children come into contact with.

 Recommendations For the Public

  1. Do not use candles* containing Pb wick cores and in the short term be suspicious of any candle containing a metal wick core.

  2. Authorities should recall all candles known to have a Pb wick cores, and suspend sales or ban the sales of all candles having metal wick cores (unless determined to be safe).

  3. If you have recently burnt such candles* for greater than an hour per day or for longer than 5 hours and have young children or pregnant women in your household; consider going to your GP for a referral for a blood lead test.

  4. If burning of such candles has been extensive and there is in addition evidence of elevated blood lead levels it will be important to ensure that accumulations of Pb in house dusts do not continue to Pb poison children (particularly less than 3-4 years old) in the house due to normal child hand-to-mouth activity.

Advice from public health or environmental health professionals may be required. Specialists in Pb exposure investigation and Pb testing such as Lead Sense will be able to conduct detailed investigations if and when required.

Particular Investigations Carried Out by Lead Sense to Date

Detailed testing has been carried out, this work has been accepted for publication in an international scientific journal.

The work involved has included:

  • design and building of a stainless steel combustion/testing chamber

  • sampling of emissions from 38cm candles

  • testing wick cores by SEM/EDS to check for the presence of elements other than Pb

  • evaluation of the total amount of Pb per unit length of wick core

  • analysis of chamber emission filters by AAS for Pb to determine air Pb emission rates

  • analysis of chamber emission filters by XRD to demonstrate that the Pb compounds emitted are of a highly bioavailable form

  • investigation of emission particles by FESEM to demonstrate that deposition of particles in the lung is likely to occur due to particle size

  • calculation of the candle Pb emission rate

  • calculation of the proportion of Pb wick core emitted to air

  • modeling of the air Pb concentrations over time under different candle burning, room volume and ventilation scenarios

  • calculation by two methods of likely child Pb uptake or child blood lead levels (PbB) based on a range of human exposure factors and known associations with Pb in air and Pb exposure.

FESEM Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope

SEM/EDS Energy Dispersive Analysis in a Scanning Electron Microscope

XRD X ray Diffraction

AAS Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy

PbB Blood Lead Level

As you may appreciate, this work, funded and carried out by Lead Sense has been both time consuming and has incurred modest expenses.

Further Investigations Recommended ( More Information Required )

Given appropriate funding and support there are a number of additional matters that could be readily investigated by Lead Sense.

    1. Is there a population of Pb poisoned people that can be identified and prioritised as a result of use of these candles with a view to conducting cleanups of residential settings and eliminate ongoing Pb hazard.

    2. There are a range of candles having metal core wicks that may pose hazards due to the toxicity of other heavy metals and more wide ranging investigation may be warranted.

    3. There is a need to evaluate the proportion of Pb fallout INDOORS related to the use of these candles so as to determine the extent of "long-term" house contamination by the combustion of candles with Pb core wicks.

Such further investigations are important. Lead Sense is the best placed consultancy in Australia to respond to and manage such investigations.

Lead Sense has the capacity to investigate consumer products using a wide range of analytical techniques and conducts evaluations of human exposure, indoor air quality and environmental contamination. An associated business is Environmental Contaminant Investigation.

What to Look For in Candles

The candles having a metal wick core come in such a vide variety of colours, shapes and containers that it is likely to be pointless at this stage to focus on the general size, shape, colour etc and other ‘external’ characteristics so as to identify problematic candles. These candles are unbranded and are poorly labelled as to ‘origin’ or manufacturer. They can be found in chain-stores specialising in the sale of low-cost items from China.

You need to examine the wick of the candle.

If you can see a silvery or dark metallic core to the fabric of the wick then you have a candle that you should be suspicious of. This is of course easy to do if the candle is new. Some of the metallic wick cores are solid metal 0.4 mm diameter and some metal cores are up to 0.8 mm diameter with a central hole in the core resembling electrical solder wire.

If the candle has been burning and you have noticed silvery droplets at the wick tip, and silvery metallic droplets at the base of the molten wax pool this is another sign of metal wick cores.

If you take a pin and scratch into the tip of a charred burnt wick you should ‘feel’ the metallic core of the candle. [Mike also said that using a needle to separate the strands of the wick of a new candle will readily reveal the metal core.]

Further Information

For further information such as graphics or photographs, please call Mike van Alphen at +61 8 8241 7055. If Lead Sense or Environmental Contaminant Investigation can assist you with consumer product testing, human exposure or environmental test work projects please get in touch.

Mike van Alphen
Lead Sense
PO Box 242
Hindmarsh SA 5007

Phone +61 8 8241 7055 ###

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Last Updated 15 April 2012
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