The Smoldering Question

In which we get back on track.

When I am on a road trip, driving from here to there, rarely do I go off on tangents or make unplanned stops. I stick to a route and get to the place I planned to be on time, if not early, and, if, along the way, I have seen a sign or billboard for some fantastic place or thing I just gotta see, and I agree, that sounds interesting, I think about it and I may even tell myself Yes! Let’s do it! Let’s be adventurous! – but then the time comes to take Exit 33XYZ to see the most unusual or greatest thing in the world and I zoom on by.

Thank goodness this does not apply when I am sitting in one place writing, thinking, reading, searching for truth. Then, my mind wanders, goes meandering, stops here and there, turns left, turns right, loops around, takes a sidetrip and another … At this juncture, however, in this endeavor set forth a few chapters and months ago in which we’ve been led far astray, I insist: We get back on track. Beeswax and negative ions—what is the answer? Do beeswax candles emit negative ions that (which) clean the air or not?

After tripping through those candle emission studies, it seemed to me that claiming that beeswax candles emit negative ions was a lot like claiming that paraffin candles are toxic: It plays well, but where is the science to back it up? Not in anything I’d read. So I felt stuck. Well into January, almost through it, fields deeply quiet in their folds of snow, the dent in the wood pile growing daily—stuck. Noodling around online once again I saw that some seemed to be backing off the negative ions claim, admitting there was no basis for it, but still many others were making the claim, often in tandem with the mantra that paraffin is toxic, and it suddenly occurred to me that the best way to get at the source of the claim if not the ultimate truth of the claim would be to go directly to those making the claim.

I contacted two beeswax candle companies of some size, each in business several years. Both were using the negative ions/air cleaning claim as part of their spiel, part of their advertising, part of their reason why you should buy a beeswax candle rather than any other type of candle. One company admitted they had no knowledge of a study that showed a link between beeswax and negative ions. Specifically, in an email, they said: “I have found some articles outline the benefits of negative ions, but nothing that shows that they are produced by beeswax.” Yet, on their website, clearly stated: “Beeswax is 100% natural and a renewable resource that actually cleans the air by emitting purifying negative ions.”

The other company I contacted pointed me toward an article in the May 2004 newsletter of Dr. Jonathan V. Wright’s Nutrition and Healing newsletter. They provided a link: They said that in the article, which they could not provide, Dr. Wright writes about a study commissioned in Japan by Akio Sato through which it is discovered that all candles emit negative ions, but beeswax does so in unusual quantity. Unfortunately they had not been able to find the actual study, but many years of testimonials from their customers, as well as their own experience, had proved to them that the negative ions/air cleaning claim was true.

The link they provided took me to the home page for Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld’s Nutrition & Healing website. At the bottom of the page, there was a disclaimer.
Health Disclaimer! The information provided on this site should not be construed as personal medical advice or instruction. No action should be taken based solely on the contents of this site. Readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being. The information and opinions provided here are believed to be accurate and sound, based on the best judgment available to the authors, but readers who fail to consult appropriate health authorities assume the risk of any injuries. The publisher is not responsible for errors or omissions.
I searched the site for “beeswax” and found a reference to an article from May 2004 titled “The proof is in: Breathe easier with beeswax.” In order to read the article, I would have to pay $79 for a subscription to the newsletter—no! Wait! Just $37! I am older than 55! But I am also a cheapskate. I decided to see if there was a less expensive way of getting the article. I searched online for Akio Sato, the person who supposedly conducted or commissioned the study, and found a pro wrestler, a baseball player, and three politicians. Befuddled, I then searched for Dr. Jonathan V. Wright and found him near Seattle, Washington, at the Tahoma Clinic, of which he was the founder and medical director. I sent an email via the clinic’s online contact form.

This all took a while to play out. Communications with the second beeswax candle company had taken a while as emails got lost, misdirected, and whatnot, and meanwhile I had contacted a “wellness” blogger who had written more than once about the air-purifying qualities of beeswax candles due to their release of negative ions. The only way I could find to contact this person without having to go on Facebook (which I have an inexplicable aversion to) was by leaving comments on their beeswax-specific posts, so I did that, submitting comments weekly for about three weeks. I asked that they please share the study that shows that beeswax candles produce negative ions. After a while, amid the deafening silence, I wondered: why am I pursuing this?

At a certain point, it—and maybe everything—becomes not about whether a beeswax candle shoots out negative ions or not but about why we believe what we believe. I remembered that for a while I too had believed the negative ion story, when I was just starting out making and selling beeswax candles and saw others were using the story as a selling point, so why not? Monkey-see, monkey-do, like lemmings to the sea. But then I questioned it: How do I know that beeswax candles emit negative ions? And I realized: Because somebody told me so. This person hadn’t conducted a study, no, they were just repeating something they had heard and, for whatever reason, believed. Now: Wouldn’t it be better to know from the actual study? But: There’s no such thing. Or: Maybe there is, but it’s really hard to find. So: Why is it so hard to find?

Over the years I had slowly, delicately, backed off the negative ions claim in my sales pitch—I mean, the customer is always right, right? And my customers were telling me that beeswax candles clean the air. Some even knew it was because of negative ions. Now, how to deal with this? By setting them straight? And in so doing pushing my own belief that this negative ions jazz was nonsense? Or at least unproven? Could I prove it was unproven? Maybe I should just agree with them. I mean, what’s the harm with being agreeable? Or, better yet, shrug and smile.

While waiting for the break in the case that I did not know was soon to come, I came up with several questions:
  • If beeswax candles emit negative ions that clean the air, how many beeswax candles burning for how long does it take to clean the air in a room the size of, say, 100 square feet? Does it matter if/how the room is ventilated? Does it matter if there is a dog or cat in the room? How about electronics? A giant screen TV? In general, what factors might diminish or enhance the effects of the beeswax candles and their air-cleaning qualities?
  • If beeswax candles emit negative ions, do candles made from other waxes also emit negative ions?
  • If beeswax candles emit negative ions and candles made from other waxes do not, what is it about the make-up of beeswax, or the way that beeswax combusts, that makes it different from all other waxes? If it’s about the way it combusts, does the type of wick come into play? Would air currents be a factor?
  • If beeswax candles emit negative ions, does the wax’s level of refinement affect the number of negative ions emitted? For instance, does highly refined or bleached beeswax emit more, fewer, or the same number of negative ions as raw beeswax? Would the origin of the wax matter? The types of pollen it contained?

Then one day I was sitting in the bathtub, steam rising, snow falling softly outside, a beeswax candle flickering nearby. I was reading an article in a magazine of which the last sentence was: “A flame is an ephemeral and fragile thing that can serve at once to memorialize the dead and light the way for the living.”

Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld’s Nutrition & Healing
Buried Words, Han Kang and the complexity of translation,” Fan, J., The New Yorker, January 15, 2018.

This page added February 4, 2019.

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