The destructive power of gel candles is heralded by a scare e-mail claiming these candles are capable of destroying toilets and burning down houses.
The e-mail has some facts right; gel candles can flare up, causing fires, and there have been several gel candle recalls. But none of the recalls say anything about these candles exploding.
This story, originally written in 2001, has been updated with new information about a safety recall in March 2005 involving gel candles suffering from the "flame up" problem.
Here's the e-mail in question. Scroll down for the debunking.
Date Captured: 4/1/2001
Gel candles are exactly that.. Gel instead of wax, they're usually clear
with pretty beads or something inside them. Anyway send this to
anybody that buys any candles, just in case.
Subject: Gel Candles
I'm forwarding this on from a friend because I've been seeing a lot of
these candles at Crate & Barrel, Bath & Body, etc. lately and was
thinking of getting some. Not anymore... Please read:
Hi all, my former secretary had a terrible thing happen to her and her
family last week, and I wanted to share it with all of you so that you
could be warned and warn your friends and family as well. She had a gel
candle burning in her bathroom...it exploded and caught her house on
fire...the house burned down and they have lost everything.
The fire marshal told her that this is not the first incident where a
gel candle has exploded and caused a fire. He said that the gel builds up a
gas, and often times it explodes and sets fire to the room it is in,
which is what happened to her. The fire was so hot it melted the smoke
alarm, and they didn't discover the fire until there was an explosion, which
was her toilet blowing up, and then it was too late...the entire upstairs
was engulfed in flames. Smoke damage and water damage have destroyed what
wasn't destroyed by fire.
Her family is devastated. All their mementos and everything of value
and meaning are gone. I'm not trying to bring anyone down...just a friendly
warning to all of you about the use of gel candles left unattended.
Thanks and take care!
NOTE: I know a lady who l! oves the gel candles. She had one
burning on her mantle and it caught fire just like in the message above.
She was at home at the time and saw it happen and grabbed the candle to
keep it from setting her home on fire and it came apart in her hand.
She saved her home but suffered 3rd degree burns to her hand and 3 fingers!
Please, if you or anyone you know have these candles, don't light them,
they are dangerous. Please, pass this on.
The problem with gel candles is not, as this e-mail claims, that they build up gas and then explode. Rather, the problem is that they can burn very hot, and that heat causes their container to expand. If the container - often glass - isn't strong enough, it can shatter. And I suppose you could call that an explosion, though personally, I think of an "explosion" as something with concussive force. But enough with the semantics; if you want to learn more, check out Snopes.com's excellent explaination of the phenomenon.
"Flare ups" from the candle, when it momentarily burns brighter, can also cause the glass to crack/shatter.
This was the case when 3 million "Clearfire Candles" were recalled by manufacturer Candle-lite in 1996 with the note that "the candles could flare up during use, causing the candles' glass holders to overheat and break. Consumers could be burned or injured by broken glass." Read the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission press release
The candles have had problems with high flames - Glade recalled 1.7 million of its gel candles in 1998 after receiving reports that its flames were shooting three inches above the top of the candle. Read the official press release.
In January 2002, CPSC, Value City and Schottenstein Stores recalled several thousand children's gel candle kits, because the plastic candle holders melted and caught fire.
Finally, in March 2005, CPSC announced a recall of "Nature's Finest" gel candles because of high flames which had caused several burns.
No where in these press releases (or on the CPSC web site) is there any mention of "exploding" gas being the cause of these recalls. Nor is there any indication that these things are packing enough destructive power to detonate a toilet, as the e-mail indicates. I could speculate that if there was an initial event that inspired this e-mail, perhaps the hot wax from the shattered candle was hot enough to break the porcelain of the toilet, but a) I'm not an expert on how much heat it takes to shatter a toilet and b) I'm not going to start experimenting on my own. In any case, even if you can shatter your toilet with a broken gel candle, it would be the heat that did it, not the gas.
So are gel candles dangerous? Yes, and in ways above and beyond those of normal candles, specifically in the form of flare ups and glass shattering. From reading around on the web (including some of the debunkings given below) it seems that many of these products encourage folks to place them on a non-flammable surface. Fire-safety common sense (as detailed on this page by the National Fire Protection Association) would also advise you not to leave candles unattended, to keep them away from flammable objects like curtains, and to keep them in a place where kids or pets can't knock them over. The lesson learned here is that gel candles can be dangerous, and that like all candles, they should be used carefully.
Incidentally, this hoax is the one I'd most love to see Discovery Channel's Mythbusters tackle. It has all the great elements of a Mythbusters: fire, explosions, and detonated porcelain.
For more on this, check out these sites: