A Burning Question

In which we embark on a journey.

beeswax negative ions
Beeswax candles emit negative ions that clean the air.
For years I endeavored to discover the source—the veracity—of that one simple statement. I had been hearing and reading and repeating it since 2009, when I began my life as a candlemaker. But, since negative ions cannot be seen with the naked eye, or smelled, tasted, or physically touched,
How do we know that beeswax candles emit negative ions that clean the air?
I figured there must be a study somewhere, conducted in a lab, all nice and neat, scientific, precise, that showed that beeswax candles emit negative ions and, in addition, that negative ions clean the air. I had heard that negative ions, when released from a burning beeswax candle, searched out and latched on to free-floating positive ions (aka pollutants) causing the whole ion to drop from circulation, to land on the surface of some object to be easily vacuumed or dusted away, which was preferable, presumably, to lightweight renegade positive ions floating freely about, possibly entering your lungs. The somewhat nonsensical but magical aura of this idea coupled with its whiff of no-nonsense science was a beeswax candle selling point almost too good to be true. If only, I thought, I could find proof that it was true.

But proof proved elusive. Admittedly, all I did was search online now and then which resulted in reading more and more often the unproved come-on: Beeswax candles actually clean the air in your home! This was often coupled with the claim: Paraffin candles are toxic! And if a website cited its source for these scientifically proven facts, the source was simply another website saying the same thing—I never found a link or a reference to a study somewhere, anywhere, conducted in a lab, all nice and neat, scientific and precise, that showed that beeswax candles emit negative ions and that negative ions clean the air. Mind you, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence, all kinds of testimony from those who had suffered for years from asthma then started burning beeswax candles and, lo and behold, no more asthma. Or maybe it was allergies being suffered, then, abra-ca-dabra, beeswax candles turned life around. Not every anecdote was so extreme, but they all fit the pattern, mine included, as at my farmers market booth, where I first began selling beeswax candles, I often told the story of my conversion to beeswax. It went something like this:
Scented candles, which I loved—who doesn’t?—made me sneeze. I finally figured it out after trying the mildest scent I could find, Cucumber Melon, in a highly recommended, high-quality, high-end candle. After lighting it I sneezed and sneezed and sneezed! So I switched to unscented paraffin tealights, bought them by the cheap bagful. No more sneezing. Then a beekeeper friend gave me some beeswax votives. I loved the scent but was afraid to light them. One day, though, I did light one, and I was fine! No sneezing! And the scent was delightful. It’s been all beeswax ever since.
This anecdote fits nicely with the whole beeswax-is-better-and-cleaner ad campaign, but all it really tells us is that something in a burning scented candle was making me sneeze and nothing in a burning paraffin or beeswax candle did the same.

At a certain point, I dropped the whole thing, quit delving into the beeswax-negative-ion jive and let it stand. I stopped repeating the claim and made it clear to customers who told me about it that I had been unable to uncover the truth of the matter, but hey, it’s what people say … so. People believe what they believe, and I often find it amazing what some people believe and, for that matter, cling to, no matter what. But when I decided one winter, after the farmers market ended, to pull back on my candle business, to keep just one local wholesale outlet going, and to end online sales in order to open up time and space for other interests to enter, I found myself drawn back to this question. Do beeswax candles emit negative ions? If they do, how do we know this? If they don’t, who first made the claim, based on what, and why? Also, is paraffin toxic? Where does that idea come from? Who discovered its toxicity? Where? When? How? And as I got back on my search engine, a few candle emissions studies began emerging from the depths of the Internet. What emerged as well were nuns, mummies, chemists, whales, wax museums, gunslingers, border raids, revolutions, horror movies, promises of gold, and Einstein’s head.

Not to mention the answer to my question.

Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

This page updated 9/12/18.

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