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Answering Your Burning Questions

by Jim Becker

Candles come in many different shapes, sizes, colors and scents and are used for many purposes. Historically, candles served a functional purpose, but today they are used primarily for decoration, and consumers must realize the risk of fire and take precautions when burning them.

Candles have an inherent danger associated with their use: an open flame. Placing candles on or near combustibles, around children and pets, or burning candles unattended can lead to fires and their potentially disastrous consequences. Defects in candle products can also lead to excessive flame heights, resulting in a greater potential for fires. Subcommittee F15.45 on Candle Products was formed to address the potential that candles have to cause fires. This article is intended to review the progress of the subcommittee’s actions and share some candle fire safety information.

CPSC Approaches ASTM

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) approached the candle industry through the National Candle Association in 1997 with the following question: Could anything be done to improve candle safety and minimize fatalities and injuries associated with candle fires? Reports citing an increasing number of fires involving candles and related civilian deaths and injuries are illustrated by the National Fire Protection Association data in Table 1.

CPSC also shared information from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System on hospital emergency room treated injuries. The increase in frequency of injuries associated with candles approximately doubled from the mid-1980s to the mid-’90s. They also reported that there had been an increase in the number of candle recalls due to fire safety issues. Recalls involving the igniting of potpourri pots, novelty candles, candle holders, and botanical candles had occurred in the previous two-year period. CPSC also noted numerous candle defects/hazards that had been observed in candle products. These include excessive flames in gel, terra cotta and metal container candles and various other types of wax candles.

During the eight year period from 1990 to 1998, the candle industry was in the midst of a significant period of increased sales. Candle consumption, based on the number of pounds of wax used to manufacture candles domestically plus the pounds of candles imported from outside the United States, increased approximately 350 percent from 240 to 850 million pounds. In spite of the disparity between the 350 percent increase in consumption of candles and the 13 to 42 perent increase in injuries and deaths from candle related fires, the candle industry and the CPSC agreed to work through ASTM and develop the necessary consensus standards to improve candle fire safety. The primary objective in this cooperative effort was to reduce injuries and deaths associated with candle fires. Subcommittee F15.45 was formed to address candle fire safety issues and held its inaugural meeting in August 1997.

The First Standards

Two task groups were organized at the first meeting of the subcommittee. The first was the Terminology Task Group. Candles were new products to the ASTM standards process, and therefore, there was a need to define the terms that would be used in the standards. Candle types such as filled, freestanding, taper, tealight and votive were defined along with other associated candle terminology. In 1999, this task group published the terminology standard F 1972, Guide for Terminology Related to Candles and Associated Accessory Items.

The second task group formed was the Fire Data Evaluation Task Group. Their objective was to identify the causes of candle fires by looking at available data so that standards could be developed and directed at those specific issues. National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) information, presented by CPSC at the August 1997 ASTM meeting, reported on the “ignition factors” for estimated residential structure fires involving candles. The following three categories are of special interest:

• Abandoned or unattended — Approximately 60 percent of candle fires originated with abandoned or unattended candles. (Abandoned candles are those left burning while the consumer was out of the house or building. Unattended candles are those burning in a room other than where the consumer is located or while the consumer sleeps.)
• Combustible, too close — This category included fires started in items such as plastics, wood furniture, papers, curtains, bedding, etc., too close to the candle flame.
• Child play — This includes fires started by children knocking a candle over, getting combustible materials too close to the candle or playing recklessly with or around a lit candle.

Collectively these three categories represented 85 percent of the “ignition factors” from the period from 1993 to 1994. Subsequent data from NFIRS has not shown a substantial change in the reported causes of candle fires.

As a result of this ignition factor data, F15.45 formed a Label Task Group. This group was directed to develop a labeling standard with specific language requirements designed to inform and educate the consumer about the recommended use of candles. F 2058, Standard Specification for Cautionary Labeling for Candles Burned in a Home, was based on the primary causes of candle fires. The following three cautionary statements should appear on candle units of sale (candles or candle packages as purchased by the consumer):

• Keep burning candle within sight.
• Keep out of the reach of children and pets.
• Never burn on or near anything that can catch fire.

This language was designed to help ensure that methods of safe use are presented to the consumer. However, there was continued concern about whether warnings on labels were sufficient. Consumer education through warning statements on candle labels is a positive step but may not appreciably reduce fires involving candles.

The next step was to go back to the data. CPSC had an ongoing program investigating various products and problems with those products. In 138 candle-related incident investigations conducted by CPSC from January 1985 to May 1997, 16 percent of them resulted in broken or shattered glass holders. The Task Group on Glass Container Performance Standards was formed, therefore, which looked into the development of standards for the glass container used as a candle product. F 2179, Standard Specification for Annealed Soda-Lime-Silicate Glass Containers that Are Produced for Use as Candle Containers, was developed, addressing the annealing and thermal shock tests and requirements for these containers. This standard provides specifications that can be identified by the candle manufacturer when glass items are purchased for use in candle products. Use of glass containers in candles that pass the requirements of this standard will make fires less likely due to an imperfection in the glass itself.

The Root Causes of Fires

After successful completion of the labeling standard and the formation of the glass task group, it was suggested that NFIRS data did not supply information on the root causes of candle fires. The subcommittee needed more in-depth data to be able to pinpoint the actual causes of candle fires. In order to determine if the cause of the fire was due to misuse of the candle or some defect in the product, the candle industry and the CPSC developed a questionnaire for fire investigators. This effort resulted in over 100 in-depth investigations that supplied additional information on the candle types involved in and the actual causes of candle fires.

Using the information from the investigations and the personal knowledge and experiences of the members, the Candle Fire Safety Task Group was formed in 2000 and had its first meeting in July of that year. A group of approximately 20 representatives of the candle industry, suppliers, the public, testing agencies, retailers, the National Candle Association and the government met to discuss the causes of candle fires and how to address them. A provisional standard was the route chosen to fast-track the development of a candle fire safety standard. The task group began by looking at the in-depth data available on candle related fires and ranked the causes by priority. Based on a consensus among task group members, the four most prevalent causes of candle fires were seen to be: excessive flame height, secondary ignition, end of useful life, and stability.

1. Excessive flame heights are those that are greater than 76.2 mm (3 in.) for most candles and greater than 95.3 mm (3.75 in.) for certain religious candles (for better visibility during the religious service). The larger the flame, the greater the potential for nearby combustible materials to ignite.
2. Secondary ignition is caused by something burning in or on the candle other than the intended wick(s). Materials that can ignite include paints, coatings and materials in or on the candle used as decoration. Another possibility is the entire fuel pool burning, called candle flashover. Secondary ignition generally leads to larger flames and can result in ignition of other combustible materials.
3. End of useful life issues arise when the candle is almost completely burned and about to go out. Filled container candles are addressed in this specification. Secondary ignition and excessive flame heights can result causing the container to break, spreading hot and/or burning materials out to possibly ignite other combustible materials in the vicinity of the candle.
4. Stability relates to the tendency of candles to tip over and start fires. Candles that tip over while burning can lead to excessive flame heights and ignition of combustible materials near the candle.

The Candle Fire Safety Task Group concentrated efforts on these four primary causes of candle fires. Extensive discussion centered on which candles to include, what the requirements should be and what test methods should be used to determine compliance. The new provisional standard is PS 59, Specification for Fire Safety for Candles. This task group has identified additional candle fire safety issues that will be discussed in upcoming meetings. Those issues considered to be relevant to the standard will be incorpo rated when its final version is balloted.

In addition to the task groups already mentioned, the subcommittee formed the Smoke Test Method Task Group. This group has been working on a test method to measure the propensity of a candle to smoke. A simple test can be used by candle manufacturers to measure the smoke from a candle while it is burning that allows them to improve the performance of that candle. A method has been developed and tested in several laboratories. The standard test method was recently balloted in January and the task group will continue to work toward a final standard based on the ballot results.


Candles are a part of our lives. From birthday cakes to dinner parties, they add a warm glow and set the mood wherever they are used. There is an inherent danger in the use of candles, however. Given the proper conditions, the open flame of a candle can cause a fire. The efforts of all of the task groups of Subcommittee F15.45 have been targeted to minimizing the chances of a fire arising from the use of candles. Candle terms have been defined in the terminology standard. A labeling standard has been passed that should increase consumer awareness of conditions which should be monitored while a candle is burning. A glass standard identifies the performance requirements for glass containers used for candles. A provisional candle fire safety standard sets out performance requirements for the four primary causes of candle fires and establishes test methods for burning and measuring the stability of candles. A smoke test method affords the manufacturer a way to improve their candle products.

All of these standards will go a long way toward reducing candle fires but will not completely eliminate them from occurring without help from the users of these products. Common sense and vigilance by the consumer must accompany the burning of candle products. //

Note in Table

(1) “Candle Fires in U.S. Homes and Other Occupancies: A Statistical Analysis” – National Fire Protection Association – October 1999 – Marty Ahrens

Copyright 2003, ASTM

Jim Becker is president of Candle Solutions and a technical consultant to the candle industry. He has over 30 years of technical experience in candle production, quality control and candle product R&D. He is the current chairman of ASTM’s F15.45 Candle Products Subcommittee and also chaired the Candle Fire Safety Task Group’s efforts to develop its provisional standard.