Dear Umbra,

Recently, nature-conscious religions such as Paganism and Wicca are getting a lot of attention. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, such religions inspire love for the environment and have spawned many eco-nuts (myself included, I admit). However, although most of the common practices seem to be eco-friendly enough, I’m concerned about some of the incense and candles being burned. I’ve heard a lot of nasty rumors about these things being toxic. Personally, whenever I use candles too often, I get a bit sick. Can you tell me what’s true about these rumors? And is burning a small piece of nature really a way to worship it?

Roosevelt, N.J.

Dearest Ina,

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No comment on the merits of different religious practices from this writer; down here in the stacks, the only thing we worship is fresh air. However, without entering into a thorny theological debate about Paganism and Wicca, I’m willing to wager that the most destructive environmental habits of adherents include driving to gatherings (brooms are okay), eating food grown with chemical additives, and using inefficient home appliances. These nondenominational environmental issues bedevil all creeds.

Burn, baby, burn.

If you are feeling ill while burning candles, I recommend: burning fewer candles. Like any burning object, candles give off particles and vapors that can enter your lungs and irritate your respiratory system. Most of these irritants are present only in negligible amounts, with the exception of lead, which is used to keep wicks stiff. U.S. candle manufacturers voluntarily ceased using lead wicks in recent years, but companies in other countries continue the practice. If you don’t know the candle’s country of origin, you can test for lead in the wick by cutting off a section, stripping the outer cotton sleeve, and rubbing the core on a piece of paper. If it contains lead, it will leave a pencil-like mark. Avoid scented candles (which contain chemical additives), paraffin candles (which are made from petroleum), and smoky flames (which produce more soot). In addition, don’t burn candles or incense in small, windowless spaces for hours on end, no matter what you’re told by your high priestess, rabbi, minister, imam, or the little voices in your head.

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