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  Several people have recently asked me whether scented candles have any health effects. The answer is a big YES - they have many negative health effects, and so do other scented products such as air fresheners and dryer sheets (e,g, Bounce). All of them contain fragrances and other chemicals - all from petrochemicals (which means they are chemical products derived from petroleum). And yes - all 3 products are totally unnecessary, so ditch them for better health. View all of them as sources of indoor air pollution.

Most of the candles on the market are made with paraffin wax, derived from petroleum, and scented with synthetic fragrances, also derived from petroleum. Synthetic fragrances typically also contain phthalates that can interfere with your hormone system (endocrine disruptors).

In one study scientists at the South Carolina State University lit several brands of candles made of paraffin – the most common and inexpensive candle wax – as well as soy candles (thus vegetable based) and burned them for 5 to 6 hours in a chamber. All of the candles were unscented and undyed. They found that the paraffin candle smoke emits varying levels of pollutants, including benzene, toluene and ketones, as well as hydrocarbon chemicals called alkanes and alkenes, which are components of gasoline. They have been linked to cancer, asthma and birth defects. None of the vegetable-based soy candles produced toxic chemicals. From SC State University:  Frequent use of certain candles produces unwanted chemicals

Researchers point out that the emissions from burning an occasional paraffin candle will not likely cause health problems - it's the frequent lighting of scented paraffin candles in indoor rooms, and inhaling the pollutants in the air that may cause health problems, or as Dr. Massoudi of S. Carolina State University stated: "could contribute to the development of health risks like cancer, common allergies and even asthma."

Scented candles are known to release various volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including both pleasant aromas and toxic components both before lighting (unlit) and when lit. When lit, the "highest emission concentration" was of formaldehydeCharacterization of hazardous and odorous volatiles emitted from scented candles before lighting and when lit

By simply touching the candles, one absorbs chemicals through the skin.  Skin contact transfer of three fragrance residues from candles to human hands.

Safe candle alternatives are beeswax candles and unscented soy candles. These do not emit toxic chemicals when burned. However, all burning candles emit soot, which is ultrafine, lung-damaging particulate matter that's capable of penetrating deep into the lungs.

From Huffington Post: The Big Problem With Scented Candles

Scented candles are one of the easiest and most effective ways to mask unpleasant odors in your home....But one of the main problems with scented candles is the scent itself. According to Anne Steinemann, an environmental pollutants expert who is a professor of civil engineering and the chair of sustainable cities at the University of Melbourne, certain candles may emit numerous types of potentially hazardous chemicals, such as benzene and toluene. They can cause damage to the brain, lung and central nervous system, as well as cause developmental difficulties.

"I have heard from numerous people who have asthma that they can’t even go into a store if the store sells scented candles, even if they aren’t being burned," Steinemann added. "They emit so much fragrance that they can trigger asthma attacks and even migraines."

Researchers at South Carolina State University tested both petroleum-based paraffin wax candles and vegetable-based candles that were non-scented, non-pigmented and free of dyes. Their 2009 report concluded that while the vegetable-based candles didn't produce any potentially harmful pollutants, the paraffin candles "released unwanted chemicals into the air," said chemistry professor Ruhullah Massoudi in a statement.

It may be shocking to think that your favorite candles could potentially be bad for you, and made worse by added fragrances. Steinemann said for some people, the effects are "immediate, acute and severe," while others may not realize they are being effected until they gradually develop health issues.

Though the risk to you may be small, there are alternatives. Steinemann suggests going the unscented route, avoiding "even those with essential oils, as they can potentially have hazardous chemicals," she said. "It's almost like air fresheners with the fragrance just sitting there ... permeating surfaces in the room."

Research study after research study finds all sorts of health benefits from exercise. But what about the air quality in those stuffy crowded gyms, especially those in already polluted areas? From November 2014 NY Times:

The Bad Air in Our Gyms

But a new study of air quality in gyms raises some interesting questions about whether the places in which we work out are as healthy as they should be. Science and common sense tell us that exercising in polluted air is undesirable. People who frequently run alongside heavily trafficked freeways and breathe great lungfuls of exhaust have been shown to have an increased risk of heart disease, even if they are otherwise in admirably good shape.

...researchers at the University of Lisbon in Portugal and the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands decided that they would place air-quality monitoring equipment in gyms throughout LisbonPortuguese fitness sites are similar to those in the United States, said Carla Ramos, a graduate student at the University of Lisbon who led the new study. Most feature a weight room and multiple, smaller studio spaces for aerobics classes, yoga sessions and similar programs.

For the new study, Ms. Ramos obtained permission from 11 Lisbon gyms to position air-quality monitors in each site’s weight room and several studios. The machines were set to measure pollutants during the late afternoon or evening hours, when the gyms were at their most crowded. For about two hours at each gym, the monitors measured the levels of commonly found indoor pollutants. These include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ozone, airborne particulates such as dust, and various chemicals released by carpeting, cleaning products, furniture or paint, including formaldehyde.

To gain even more detailed readings, the scientists subsequently placed additional monitors in three of the gyms, which measured air quality throughout the building and throughout the entire day.Then they checked the pollutant levels from all of the gyms.

Their findings were disquieting. In general, the gyms showed high levels of airborne dust, formaldehyde and carbon dioxide. The concentrations of these substances generally exceeded most accepted standards for indoor air quality. (No government agency in the United States formally monitors air quality in gyms.) The levels were especially high during evening aerobics classes, when many people were packed into small studios, stirring up dust and fumes and puffing heavily, producing carbon dioxide with every breath.

The high concentrations of dust and chemicals like formaldehyde in the air at the gyms represent perhaps the greatest potential concern, Ms. Ramos said. In sufficient concentrations, these substances can contribute to asthma and other respiratory problems, she said. Almost all of the gyms in the study had levels of these substances that significantly exceed European standards for healthy indoor air standards.

Carbon dioxide, though not toxic to people, could also be cause for concern. In high concentrations, Ms. Ramos said, it has been found to contribute to bodily fatigue and cognitive fogginess, neither of which is desirable during a high-intensity aerobics class. Elevated levels of carbon dioxide can also indicate a poorly ventilated building, she said, especially if they remain inflated for hours, as they did in her study.

We consider that the gymnasiums meet the criteria for a poor indoor quality,” Ms. Ramos said. Poor indoor air quality is a particular issue in gyms, of course, because people there tend to be breathing heavily. “When we exercise, we take in more air with each breath and most of that air goes through the mouth, bypassing the natural filtration system” in the nostrils, Ms. Ramos said. “The pollutants go deeper into the lungs compared to resting situations.”

The findings should not, however, discourage anyone from visiting a gym, Ms. Ramos said. None of the sites in the study had measurable levels of carbon monoxide, she pointed out, one of the most dangerous of known air pollutants.

An article comparing the U.S. versus the European Union's approach to chemicals in products (including in cosmetics, personal care products, and foods), which explains why a number of chemicals are banned in Europe, but allowed in the U.S. From Ensia:

BANNED IN EUROPE, SAFE IN THE U.S.

Atrazine, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is estimated to be the most heavily used herbicide in the U.S., was banned in Europe in 2003 due to concerns about its ubiquity as a water pollutant. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration places no restrictions on the use of formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing ingredients in cosmetics or personal care products. Yet formaldehyde-releasing agents are banned from these products in Japan and Sweden while their levels — and that of formaldehyde — are limited elsewhere in Europe. In the U.S., Minnesota has banned in-state sales of children’s personal care products that contain the chemical.

Use of lead-based interior paints was banned in France, Belgium and Austria in 1909. Much of Europe followed suit before 1940. It took the U.S. until 1978 to make this move, even though health experts had, for decades, recognized the potentially acute — even deadly — and irreversible hazards of lead exposure.

These are but a few examples of chemical products allowed to be used in the U.S. in ways other countries have decided present unacceptable risks of harm to the environment or human health. How did this happen? Are American products less safe than others? Are Americans more at risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals than, say, Europeans?

Not surprisingly, the answers are complex and the bottom line, far from clear-cut. One thing that is evident, however, is that “the policy approach in the U.S. and Europe is dramatically different."

A key element of the European Union’s chemicals management and environmental protection policies — and one that clearly distinguishes the EU’s approach from that of the U.S. federal government — is what’s called the precautionary principleThis principle, in the words of the European Commission, “aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative” decision-making. In other words, it says that when there is substantial, credible evidence of danger to human or environmental health, protective action should be taken despite continuing scientific uncertainty.

In contrast, the U.S. federal government’s approach to chemicals management sets a very high bar for the proof of harm that must be demonstrated before regulatory action is taken.

This is true of the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act, the federal law that regulates chemicals used commercially in the U.S. The European law regulating chemicals in commerce, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), requires manufacturers to submit a full set of toxicity data to the European Chemical Agency before a chemical can be approved for use. U.S. federal law requires such information to be submitted for new chemicals, but leaves a huge gap in terms of what’s known about the environmental and health effects for chemicals already in use. Chemicals used in cosmetics or as food additives or pesticides are covered by other U.S. laws — but these laws, too, have high burdens for proof of harm and, like TSCA, do not incorporate a precautionary approach.

While FDA approval is required for food additives, the agency relies on studies performed by the companies seeking approval of chemicals they manufacture or want to use in making determinations about food additive safety. Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist Maricel Maffini and NRDC senior attorney Tom Neltner “No other developed country that we know of has a similar system in which companies can decide the safety of chemicals put directly into food,” says Maffini.  The two point to a number of food additives allowed in the U.S. that other countries have deemed unsafe

Reliance on voluntary measures is a hallmark of the U.S. approach to chemical regulation. In many cases, when it comes to eliminating toxic chemicals from U.S. consumer products, manufacturers’ and retailers’ own policies — often driven by consumer demand or by regulations outside the U.S. or at the state and local level — are moving faster than U.S. federal policy. 

Cosmetics regulations are more robust in the EU than here,” says Environmental Defense Fund health program director Sarah Vogel. U.S. regulators largely rely on industry information, she says. Industry performs copious testing, but current law does not require that cosmetic ingredients be free of certain adverse health effects before they go on the market. (FDA regulations, for example, do not specifically prohibit the use of carcinogens, mutagens or endocrine-disrupting chemicals.) 

For the FDA to restrict a product or chemical ingredient from cosmetics or personal care products involves a typically long and drawn-out process. What it does more often is to issue advisories.

At the same time, built into the U.S. chemical regulatory system is a large deference to industry. Central to current U.S. policy are cost-benefit analyses with very high bars for proof of harm rather than a proof of safety for entry onto the market. Voluntary measures have moved many unsafe chemical products off store shelves and out of use, but our requirements for proof of harm and the American historical political aversion to precaution mean we often wait far longer than other countries to act.