Buy safe, eco-friendly candles
Pushpa Girimaji

Till recently in urban India candles served the sole purpose of dispelling darkness when power supply failed. Accordingly, the candles were simple, unimaginative objects. They were long, white, cylindrical units with a wick running through them. But today they have become much more than just a source of illumination. Made in a variety of colours, shapes and designs, they have acquired sophistication and a new meaning. Packaged in beautiful containers, they are used for decorating homes and are highly popular as "gift items".

In fact their use has now gone even beyond illumination and decoration. They are being used for aroma therapies and relaxation. This Divali they were really high on the shoppers' list. Their increasing popularity should, however, not blind us to the safety aspect, and that's what I would like to write about this week. In fact I would begin with a beautiful Divali present that a friend got it was a candle mounted on a tall bamboo and obviously meant for outdoor use in a balcony or a garden. It could even be kept with a potted plant inside the house.

However, in lieu of a wax container, the manufacturer had used a coconut shell, and this was a big mistake. From what I heard, she put it in the garden amidst bamboo chairs and lit it, and it was a beautiful sight. However, once the wax got exhausted, the coconut shell caught fire. If it had not been noticed in time and extinguished, it could well have spread to the cushions on the chairs. Now whoever came up with this particular design, obviously had no concept of safety. Otherwise he would have realised that using a dried coconut shell was not the right thing to do. In fact this reminds me of a voluntary recall notice issued by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission on November 15 this year for "Birch bark wrapped candles".

Explaining that when the candle burnt down, the bark wrapping could ignite, posing a fire hazard, the CPSC said. Consumers should not use the candles and return them for a full refund. The CPSC in the US has a 24-hour toll-free helpline on which consumers can complain or report about unsafe products. In this case, the CPSC received three complaints that the birch bark wrapping caught fire when the wax was exhausted. Here, too, wrapped in the bark, the candles looked beautiful and cost as much as $ 20 to 80 a piece. But the manufacturer had obviously paid no heed to the safety of the product. In September, too, the CPSC had announced a recall of outdoor candles with glazed lower portions, on the ground that two consumers had suffered minor burn injuries in their hands when they tried to extinguish the flames coming from the candles.

From 1990 onwards, the CPSC has recalled over 100 candles and candle accessories on the ground that they were unsafe and could pose a fire hazard. In the coming years, I expect that the popularity of candles will increase in urban India. So one needs to ensure that: (a) the products are safe; and (b) that they are used in such a way as to prevent accidental injuries and fires. In some countries in North America and Europe, candle manufacturer associations provide safety labels. We also need to look at such possibilities to ensure that candles sold in the market are safe in all respects and eco-friendly.

We also need to look at the safety of candles coming from China. Similarly, our label laws (Standards of weights and measures) need to be modified to ensure that candles carry safety instructions on the label. Meanwhile, here are some safety precautions that one should follow while using candles. For example, they must always be kept on a flat, firm, heat-resistant surface, away from paper, clothes, curtains and other flammable substances. They should not be kept on wooden shelves. In fact I have seen people keeping candles on book-cases, resulting in their catching fire. It is always better to trim the wick of the candle to quarter of an inch so as to ensure that the flame does not become too big. In fact experts say that it is better to extinguish the candle when there is about two inches of wax left.

One should also ensure that children do not touch or go near candles. Always extinguish the candles before leaving the room, particularly before going to sleep. Never leave these burning. Candles that have been put out can go on smouldering and start a fire. So make sure that they are completely extinguished before going to bed or leaving the room.