The Aroma of Death
Date Added: July 2, 2004
The safety of aromatherapy and, in particular, candles used for the purpose (or simply to freshen the air) is a popular topic of urban legends. However, most legends warn of the risk of fire such products present. This one is quite unique - and probably the least likely - in warning about asphyxiation.
Never light candles in air-cond. room
For those who sleep in the air-cond room...
A friend of mine has passed away recently, please read the mail below and be careful.
Heard of a bad news regarding Charlene, who studied in MSMKL with some of us. She passed away last weekend due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
It happened when she lighted an aromatheraputic candle for the night in a room with air-conditioning on and all windows closed.
Due to lack of oxygen in the room, the burning of the candle cannot fully oxidized & thus forming dangerous carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide will prevent oxygen exchange in the lungs, resulting the person dozing off to state of unconsciousness & eventual lay death in less than 1 hour, depending on the room size.
I am sending this e-mail out to all of you so that you will be aware of such danger when lighting aromatheraputic candles in any unventilated rooms.
Please forward this email to all your love ones.
Like most urban legends (such as the Glade plug-in and gel candles rumors), this one provides very little verifiable information. Only earlier versions contain clues to the supposed victim's identity. Unfortunately, it's incomplete and no indication of date, location or any other data that would help us track down reliable accounts of this alleged tragedy are given. Searches on the tidbits that are given return only reposts of the letter above.
The spelling of the friend's name is alternately "Charliene" and her identity is often left out completely from newer versions of this chain. MSMKL stands for MAKTAB SAINS MARA, Kuala Lumpur, a technical college now known as the MARA Education Foundation College. That reference, coupled with the numerous peculiar spelling and grammatical errors seem to indicate that this "warning" originated in Malaysia and was translated into English.
No explanation is given for how the cause of death was ultimately decided to be asphyxiation by carbon monoxide - no authorities or other source of the conclusion are named. At best, what we have here is a lay person's supposition or misunderstanding of what might have caused the friend's death.
So, could it happen? It's possible, given a very specific, yet highly unlikely combination of factors. First, the room would have to be pretty airtight. Airtight facilities typically have oxygen exchange systems to remove toxins and keep the air breathable, so we'll have to assume this was not the case here. Second, most air conditioning systems can be set either to vent room air and replace or supplement it with outside air, or recirculate the room air (for maximum cooling). The tragedy described above could only happen if the latter was the case.
So, in an airtight, unventilated room with recirculating, unpurified and unsupplemented air, a burning candle could conceivably cause asphyxiation - a closed vault comes to mind. Such an environment would be an unhealthy place, indeed, with or without the burning candle. One's own breathing could be deadly in such an environment, as human respiration exchanges oxygen with carbon dioxide. Nonetheless, we're told that it was carbon monoxide produced by the burning candle which served to suffocate our victim. Just as humans need Oxygen to breath, candles need oxygen to burn. Most candles will suffocate themselves long before the levels of oxygen in a room get low enough to cause asphyxiation in humans.
A much more likely health risk from burning a candle in a poorly ventilated room is soot. Soot is the by-product of inefficient combustion. According to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, however, not much is known about the risk of soot from burning candles: "Although researchers have studied the health risks of soot from diesel exhaust and factory emissions, no studies have focused specifically on residential exposure to candles." Drafts from an air conditioner or fans can reduce the flame's efficiency and increase the candle's soot output by as much as 50 percent. Accumulation of tiny soot particles in the lungs can aggravate respiratory illness, but there are no known cases of asphyxiation from soot.
Nonetheless, U. of F. researchers recommend several tips for safe, clean candle burning:
This letter misses a much more likely threat and a warning that better serves most of us: Never burn a candle unattended. While it's not specifically stated, we're left to assume that "Charliene" intended to burn the candle as she slept, which is a bad idea no matter what kind of room you're in. Simply being in the same room with a candle is not enough to prevent fire and injury - A burning candle should always be carefully monitored. Break this chain.
References: University of Florida