Eco Answers From the Eco-Expert

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Candlelight, Candle Bright

I enjoy burning candles, but have heard that there may be health hazards associated with this holiday tradition. Can you explain the problem? I love the gentle glow of candlelight and don’t want to give up my candles!
–Wendy Li, Washington, D.C.

The problem is only with some ­paraffin and scented candles. Some paraffin candles still have lead core wicks which, according to preliminary tests, volatilize during normal burning and emit particulate-matter lead.

Children are particularly vulnerable to such emissions. Chronic low-level exposure to lead has been found to produce permanent neuro-psychological defects and behavior disorders in children, including low IQ, short attention span, hyperactive behavior, and motor difficulties. In adults, early signs of lead poisoning include gastrointestinal problems, muscle pains and weakness, irritability, excessive thirst, headache, insomnia, depression, and lethargy.

In a home that burned a number of candles with lead core wicks, preliminary wipe test results showed 40 mg of lead per square foot–an unacceptable level, since 100 percent inhaled lead is ab­sorbed into the bloodstream. In fact, there is no safe level for lead exposure. Simply breathing in small particulate matter such as that released by lead core wicks can irritate and damage the lungs and cause breathing problems. People with asthma or any type of lung or heart disease should be particularly cautious. Moreover, fumes from paraffin wax itself have been found to cause kidney and bladder tumors in laboratory animals.

Now that aromatherapy has become so popular, many amateurs have begun to manufacture candles without the proper training. Such inexperienced candlemakers are dumping far too many fragrance oils into their wax mixtures–some of which are artificial and unsuitable for combustion. Toxic chemicals found in the combustion by-products of scented candles include acetone, benzene, carbon disulfide, carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethene, chlorobenzene, xylene, phenol, cyclopentene, lead, carbon monoxide, soot, and particulate matter. Finally, in addition to producing toxic chemicals, artificial fragrances do not offer the healing benefits of the true essential oils used by experienced aromatherapy practitioners. Candle manufacturers are not required to list or disclose hazardous, toxic, or carcinogenic compounds used in their products or even warn against lead content and ­emissions.

You can still enjoy candlelight, however, by purchasing beeswax candles with cotton wicks or tapioca wax candles, which are all-vegetable, completely renewable, dripless, and smokeless. Coyote Found Candles, (800) 788-4142 or, makes both beeswax and tapioca wax candles, and vegetable wax aromatherapy candles. Their catalog also includes many candleholders made from recycled materials. For the holidays try bayberry candles, made from the wax of the bayberry plant, which you can order from Vermont Country Store, (800) 362-4647.

Controlling Mold in Closets

I took special interest in the Environmentor’s discussion of natural air conditioning in your June issue. However, one weather variable was not addressed. The EPA identifies humidity as the chief culprit of indoor air pollution and sick-building syndrome, and recommends an indoor humidity level below 50 percent to inhibit mold and mildew. Yet my outdoor humidity levels are consistently in the 80-90 percent range. I have tried to solve this problem by operating a dehumidifier in the basement and exhaust cooling upstairs, but this hasn’t helped eliminate mold in my closets. Is there a better solution than air conditioning or high-efficiency humidifiers?
–Russell Henley, Canton, OH

Mold needs very special conditions to survive–dampness, darkness, and still air. Winter is the best season for mold growth. Any time you change conditions by introducing drying heat, light, or moving air, the mold cannot survive. I suggest putting a lightbulb in your closet and leaving it on all the time. This will give both heat and light. You could also install a small fan to move the air and dry it out at the same time. Leave space between your clothes so air can circulate. If you need a quick fix for any moldy place (including a whole room), dry out the existing mold with a small space heater. Then use other means to maintain a mold-free environment.

Earth Friendly Car Products

I have been looking everywhere for earth friendly car products such as antifreeze, engine oil (I have heard a specialized hemp oil can be used), and windshield wiper fluid. I hate to have these toxic products not only in my car but stored in my tool shed. Please let me know where I can get alternative products.
–Elizabeth Wakefield, Westminster, CO

Safe antifreeze is easy. At my local auto supply store, which is part of a national chain, I found two brands of antifreeze/coolant made from propylene glycol–safe enough to be used as a food additive–and not from the more toxic ethylene glycol, considered household hazardous waste. One antifreeze/coolant is Sierra from Old World Industries, (800) 323-5440, and the other is Prestone LowTox from Prestone, (800) 862-7737. If a major company like Prestone is making this product, others are sure to follow and you should have no trouble finding it. (My husband wants me to mention that it’s very important to use a mix of 50 percent antifreeze/ coolant to 50 percent water. You can top off your radiator with plain water, but without the coolant your radiator will rust, the car will overheat, and you’ll need a new engine.)

Less toxic engine oil is not available, to my knowledge. You can sometimes find recycled engine oil, but while it saves resources, it isn’t less toxic. As for engine oil made from hemp, experiments are underway, but there is not yet a commercially available product. If you are interested in products made from hemp, log on to the Hemp Industries Association website at cfm, which lists over a hundred member businesses that make hemp products. When hemp engine oil be­comes available, it will probably be listed here.

I don’t know of any commercial product for windshield wiper fluid, but it is fairly easy to make your own using plain water plus an additive to keep the water from freezing. In Better Basics for the Home (Three Rivers Press, 1997), Annie Berthold-Bond suggests adding glycerin and/or denatured rubbing alcohol to water in the following amounts.

Water Softeners

Our water here is fine as far as drinking goes, but it is “hard.” There is a lot of residue when the water drips from our faucets, and our skin is very dry. My husband would like to invest in a water softener. What kind of effect would a softener have on our health and our vegetation?
–Mara Beardmore, Sunnyvale, CA

Water softeners work by exchanging molecules of the “hardness mineral” (usually limestone) for sodium or potassium molecules. The result is softer water, but–because sodium is usually the first choice–it also contains more salt. If you drink a lot of water (and you should for good health) softened water can add a lot of unwanted refined salt to your diet. Use potassium instead of sodium or install a reverse osmosis water filter to remove the sodium and practically anything else in the water.

My local water softener dealer says that the amount of salt in softened water shouldn’t affect your vegetation, but he also says that softeners are usually installed to soften only indoor water. It sounds like a water softener might be a good purchase for you; it will save cleaning mineral deposits and make soap products easier to rinse from your clothes. (For more information on water filtration, see Natural Home’s May/June 1999 issue, page 56.)

Counteracting Mothball Odor

Do you know of any products available for counteracting the smell of mothballs in an outdoor storage shed? We live in a mobile home park. We recently put up a storage shed and just threw mothballs all over inside. The smell is bothering the people next door. Is there a safe product I can use to reduce the smell without taking everything out of the shed and removing the mothballs?
–Shelly Hoops, via e-mail

I know of no way to counteract the smell of mothballs without eliminating them. You may want to completely seal any cracks in the shed to keep the mothball smell inside–this will also keep out moisture. My preference is to eliminate the mothballs altogether. Then you can air out the items in the shed and use a natural, fragrant repellant such as cedar, lavender, rosemary, or mint.

Debra Lynn Dadd is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and author of Home Safe Home.
If you have eco-questions, please write her at Natural Home, 201 E. Fourth St., Loveland, CO 80537-5655; or visit her website at
“Environmentor” is used with the permission of the EnvironMentors Project, an environmental education mentoring program.