Warning: Handle beeswax candles with care

_1105210_russgirls300apPlease understand that I realize that religious faith is quite controversial in Europe these days — especially anything that is highly symbolic of the ancient Christian past. I mean, this pope is currently all but leading a rebellion against the legal recognition of the post-Christian reality that is the European Union.

Meanwhile, the Dutch are still in shock from the Theo van Gogh murder and trying to wrestle with the reality that there are religious believers who simply do not want to embrace liberal Western values (Wait! Can we say that there are Western values that are worth protecting?) the way that they should. You know, values like free speech — even offensive free speech.

Perhaps religion is just bad — period.

Perhaps religious worship, or at least some of those ancient traditional forms, is even bad for people’s health. You think I am joking? Then you didn’t see one of the strangest stories of this week, which ran in the Los Angeles Times under the headline: “Church Candles Are Linked to Pollution.”

Sure enough, the reporter Miguel Bustillo’s news hook begins with Dutch researchers.

The candles and incense regularly burned during religious services emit high levels of particulate matter, tiny airborne flecks considered to be one of the most harmful forms of air pollution, according to a new study by scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

Researchers measured air quality at a small chapel and a large basilica in Maastricht and found that the air in both places contained particulate matter at levels up to 20 times higher than what is considered safe to breathe under European air pollution standards. … The researchers said that the pollutants should not affect the well-being of most churchgoers, but that priests and especially devout congregants who spend long periods inside poorly ventilated chapels could be endangering their health.

“It cannot be excluded that regular exposure to candle- or incense-derived particulate matter results in increased risk of lung cancer or other pulmonary diseases,” wrote Theo de Kok, leader of the Maastricht team. The paper, titled “Radicals in the Church,” also noted that the air monitoring detected high levels of free radicals, or molecules that can aggravate asthma or bronchitis conditions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — in a 2001 report — has aired similar fears about other indoor spaces. It seems that studies of indoor polution are not as up to date as they should be. And interfaith leaders have been focusing on other environmental issues. Bustillo notes that the Los Angeles Interfaith Environmental Council has a “green sanctuary” program that has been working with 16 mosques, synagogues and churches to promote solar power and other alternative forms of energy.

So what next? Alternative forms of worship? Warning signs outside of Anglo-Catholic and traditionalist Roman Catholic sanctuaries? What about families with home icon corners and incense burners? Is it safe to raise children in these homes?

What is the cancer rate for priests in Eastern Orthodox Christianity? Please, somebody get me some more data. Until then, I am still going to go to church and light up, with prayers of thanksgiving.

Come to think of it, do all of those giant video screens in Protestant megachurches emit harmful rays?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://blog.kevinbasil.com basil

    Actually, one thing you should investigate further is beeswax candles versus petroleum derivative (parafin) candles. Beeswax actually burns much cleaner and leaves less soot in the air.

    Another avenue to pursue is to look into monasteries that produce and market their incense as “hypo-allergenic,” or other similar monikers. Many parishes have looked into such products after being requested to (respectfully or otherwise) by parishioners with allergies.

    I’m sure some GetReligion readers out there can provide further information.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    Did these high-pollutin’ candles sneak into the church by way of those Episcopalian Druids?

  • http://ChristianityToday.com Michael Herman

    I taught in Ukraine back in 1994, while I was in college. And while I was there, we visited a holy site of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In the catacomb-like underground tunnels, the chilly air was lit only our candles as we walked past one mummified patriarch after another (some preserved better than others).

    Halfway through my tour, I was harshly criticized by a priest for the way I was holding my candle. I wasn’t holding it between my 3rd and 4th finger from my thumb, palm up, so I could feel the pain of the wax dripping on my hand — (signifying the pain of the saints from years past — I was later told).

    That’s my experience with those beeswax candles. A little off-topic, but interesting nonetheless.

  • RB

    The us of incense in church is an issue for my wife and daughter, both of whom have asthma. We visited an Anglo-Catholic parish the summer before last, and they were unable to sit through the service, which was most inspiring. Both of them became ill and had to sit in the car. I couldn’t tell such a church not to use incense, but we won’t be back there again.