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Preston and Travolta Spotlight Candle Safety

By Adele Slaughter, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

Whether it was in Jerry Maguire or For Love of the Game, Kelly Preston is known for lighting up the screen. During this holiday season Preston and her co-star in life - John Travolta-- are illuminating some health issues that will keep our homes bright and safe.

"We use a lot of pine and natural things to scent our home. I use candles, but they're unscented and don't have any lead in them, especially in the wicks," says Preston. "I don't use any fragrances period. I don't use any perfumes or scented things. Mostly when things leave a scent, unless it is a natural product, what you smell in the air is chemical particles."

Preston and Travolta know first-hand about the possibilities of toxic chemicals in the home environment.

"Eight years ago our son got very, very sick with high fever and swollen glands and peeling fingers and rash all over his body," says Preston, who has taken on the role as national spokesperson for Children's Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC). "We thought it was just the flu, and after several rounds of antibiotics and trips to the doctor, she diagnosed him with Kawasaki syndrome."

A relatively rare disease, Kawasaki syndrome is a serious rash illness generally contracted by children. 

"At the time, one of the questions on the questionnaire was, 'Have you cleaned your carpet with chemicals recently,'" adds Preston. "We had and so had every other parent in the ward. It was then that we vowed to learn everything we could about our child's environment."

"Because it's not just carpets and chemicals, it's in the paints you choose, fabrics you choose, particle boards and the materials you use to renovate," says Travolta. "It's in the grass and the chemicals you use on your lawn. And pesticides are big, one of the biggest problems."

And during the holiday season there are even more environmental concerns to be aware of, including items we use to decorate our homes.

Candle lighting

In December, candle fires happen at twice as much as the rest of the year. According to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, nearly 85% of candle fire incidents were caused by consumer misuse. Unattended candles are the leading cause of home candle fires.

"The big danger of candles is a child or combustible materials catching fire," says Philip Landrigan, professor of pediatrics Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "It is so obvious, but it needs to be said."

"The holidays are a joyous time," says Nancy Chuda, who co-founded CHEC with her husband, Jim. "It's a time where we want to close up in our homes and celebrate. Most homes do all the wonderful things: we have Christmas trees with ornamental lights, candles, and burning fires. Unfortunately, candles can be a problem because they emit a low level of volatile organic compounds (VOC)."

According to New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, 95% of perfume ingredients are synthesized from petrochemicals, which give off VOCs.

"Some of those perfumed candles can release things that irritate people, especially kids with asthma," says Landrigan, who is also co-author of Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World. "There are still candles on the market that have lead in them. The way to deal with that is for people to ask about the candles and only buy lead free candles."

Children under the age of six are the most likely to get lead poisoning, which can damage the nervous system, cause brain damage, and lower intelligence.

"No one can get lead poisoning from a candle," says Landrigan.  "However, it could increase lead in the body, so when a child gets exposed from another source, like water or paint with lead, it might push that level up to toxic levels in the blood."

In the past, when candles from China and Taiwan were found to have lead, the Consumer Products and Safety Commission recommended that lead-wicked candles be banned.

Right to know

"Unfortunately we don't have 'right to know' laws. If we did, when you purchased a candle you would know," says Chuda. "You can check the wick and if it is metal there is a strong possibility that it will contain lead. I think it is important when you buy candles that you ask if it is manufactured and made here in America. Be wary of imported candles."

According to Preston, there's ample reason for caution regarding lead exposure. "One million kids have suffered irreparable brain damage from lead," says Preston

"Lead is a big issue," adds Travolta. "Years ago, and even today, if you walk into a house that has just been painted, you breathe in the paint, you don't feel well, and you can feel the fumes. It is amazing what we subject ourselves to. I was brought up in the 60s, when chemicals were the latest, cool thing."

"What people don't know is that when they use all these chemicals - the scents, the cleaning products - the air inside your home can be more dangerous than breathing on a freeway," says Preston. "We're taught if it smells fresh it is a healthy environment, and that's not always true. It can be very toxic and affect you on a cellular level. And toxic air especially affects small children with smaller immune systems."

And candles aren't the only air pollutants in the home.

"The fumes from fireplaces and cast-iron stoves can trigger asthma in children," says Landrigan. "I don't think they're worse than cigarette smoke. Even though the peak exposure could be worse in the moment, in terms of cumulative exposure, cigarette smoke is much worse."

"Unfortunately, a lot of the firewood people burn in their fireplaces has been treated, and those chemicals become volatile once it is ignited in your home," says Chuda. "It might be wise to purchase some of the logs that are made form non-toxic products which also do not cause pollution."

To help make finding safer alternatives easier, CHEC has created a web site to help people learn about all the hidden dangers that might be in the home.

"We've launched a Healthy House on the Internet thanks to the Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. government," says Chuda. "We've been able to put together a wonderful one-stop virtual cyber-shop for parents to peruse at their leisure. You can look at every room in the house and find out what are the typical dangers."

"This is a great time to cut down on the chemicals and know what sort of products you're using," says Preston. "Especially during the holidays, when your house is shut up tight and you want to keep the heat in, you don't want to fill your environment with toxic scents that can affect you and your children adversely, because this is a time for joy and celebrating life."

• HealtheHouse at CHEC

• Candle-Safety

• National Fire Protection Agency

• Susan Sullivan illuminates holiday candle safety

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Created: 1/12/2003  -  Adele Slaughter & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

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