Friday, March 26, 2010

Candles Cause Cancer and Brain Rot

Ah, candlelight. It's so scented and flickery and romantic and 18th century and ... carcinogenic. Recent studies reveal that paraffin candles -- that's your generic, garden-variety hunk of wax-- are flaming sticks of burning poison, releasing a bouquet of aromatic toxins into your home every time you light them.

Paraffin comes from crude oil, and it's filled with all kinds of nasty chemicals, just like gas and oil are. (Paraffin candles even contribute to global warming -- emitting about 10 grams of carbon dioxide per candlelit hour.) One study observed that the soot produced by paraffin candles is very similar to diesel exhaust:

Diesel soot and candle soot share the same physical and many of the same chemical properties which are believed to contribute to both toxicity and carcinogenicity. These similarities point to a similar potential for adverse health effects.

An August 2009 study by the American Chemical Society found that burning paraffin candles releases compounds like toluene, benzene, methylethylketone, naphthalene -- the first two on the list are known carcinogens.

Many commercial candles also have lead wicks, which -- big surprise -- release lead into the air when burned, thus helping rot your brain. Lead wicks are illegal in the U.S., but they are easy to find anyway -- EPA researchers had no trouble finding candles with lead wicks when they did their candle study.

Look for candles made of beeswax or soy. Both have been found to be significantly less toxic than paraffin. If you want to use up your old paraffin sticks, just make sure to provide adequate ventilation.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Corn-Based Plastic -- Vice Masquerading as Virtue

So there you are, tossing your corn-based plastic cup into your corn-based plastic garbage bag and then tossing your corn-based plastic garbage bag into your regular old garbage bin. OK, so it's going to the landfill, but still, it's biodegradable and that makes you all green and virtuous and stuff, right?

Actually, no.


Turns out that compostable plastics are only green if you actually compost them. If you toss them in the landfill, they're not going to decompose any more than a conventional plastic bag will. Or at least you hope they won't. In the oxygen-deprived atmosphere of the landfill, decomposing organic materials produce methane, a greenhouse gas 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20 year time frame. Landfills are the largest human-made source of methane emissions in the United States, with a greenhouse-gas impact equal to one-fifth of that produced by the nation's coal-fired power plants.

If it's not going to be composted in an industrial-grade composting facility, don't use compostable plastic. Throwing compostable plastic in with recyclable plastic just contaminates the recycling load, and trying to compost corn plastics in your home compost pile doesn't work (home compost piles don't get hot enough). If the garbage is headed to the dump anyway, you might as well use conventional plastic garbage bags. The real low-impact solution: work to eliminate your landfill-bound garbage entirely by composting your food waste, recycling your recyclables, and avoiding products with plastic packaging.