29 June 2008

The looming candle crisis…

I learned recently that there is a shortage of paraffin wax for candle making in Mexico. Apparently several major international producers of paraffin wax for candles have gone out of the candle wax business. No doubt this has something to do with the global oil situation in general. This shortage couldn’t come at a worse time because this is the candle making season in Mexico in anticipation for the increase in demand for candles for the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) observances in early November and the Adviento (Advent) and Posada (Pilgrimage) season leading up to Navidad (Christmas). This is definitely not good news in Mexico and is akin to adding insult to injury to many poor Mexican families. Life is tough enough with the rise in food prices and essential items like gas for cooking and fuel for cars and trucks. Now there may not be enough affordable good quality candles. What next? The end of this year already looks to be pretty dark and gloomy in my crystal ball.

My wife Gina tells me that some of the poorer country people still use tallow candles. Tallow is rendered from beef fat and is called “sebo” in Spanish. They obtain beef fat from the butcher and put it in a big pot with water and cook it over a fire until all of the tallow is rendered out and floats to the top. Then they let it cool until they can skim off the tallow. Then they melt the tallow and repeatedly dip strings into it to build up layers of tallow until they have candles. This is the same way that the early settlers made tallow candles. They aren’t very good for lighting. They are too soft, messy, smelly, and smoky. Gina told me that she thinks that some of the cheap paraffin candles on the market must have tallow in them because they are so smoky. I looked in to that, however, and I think that tallow and paraffin do not readily mix and the smoke is probably due to cheap paraffin called semi-refined paraffin. I also learned that many candles now come from Russia, India, and China and have certain percentages of low cost filler substances in them to make them cheaper and they are somewhat smoky.

About sixty percent of the world’s production of paraffin goes into candle making and over the last year the price of paraffin has almost doubled. For many of the world’s poor, this is a definite adverse quality of life issue. In many underdeveloped countries the electricity supply is subject to frequent outages and people depend upon candles more than on flashlights for emergency lighting. It is also a health issue. The homes can be very small and yet contain a multitude of people and there are probably some negative health issues from breathing the smoke of inferior candles. There are some alternatives of course but they are all expensive. First of all there are beeswax candles, the majority of which are seventy percent beeswax and thirty percent paraffin. Not much help there especially with a bee shortage on top of a paraffin shortage. Wax from soybeans is a good alternative but because the price of soybeans is being elevated by the biodiesel industry there is no help there either. There are other waxes derived from vegetables and some waxes derived from coal but they are either too expensive, inappropriate, or unavailable in sufficient quantities at the present time.

I learned that the word “paraffin” was coined by German chemist Karl von Reichenbach (1788-1869) from the Latin words “parum” (not very, too little) and “affinis” (associated with) because paraffin is chemically not closely related to other substances. Later on this led to some confusion. Paraffin wax is different than “illuminating paraffin” or “paraffin oil”. Both substances belong to the family of chemicals called “alkanes” and are made up of long strings of carbon and hydrogen molecules. Their physical properties are much different from one another and in North America illuminating paraffin is called “kerosene” and is used as a liquid fuel. In Great Britain and in many former British colonies kerosene is called paraffin and if you mean wax then you must say “paraffin wax”. This leads to another environmental issue. In many areas of Africa and in parts of Asia the people use kerosene which they call “illuminating paraffin” for heating, lighting and cooking. Because kerosene was relatively cheap it was the only alternative to cutting down all the trees for fuel. With the rising price of petroleum products in general the price of kerosene has risen beyond the reach of many poor people and out of desperation they have returned to burning wood. This can only lead to further ecological problems.

The current world energy shortage may be just a nuisance to some people. They have access to multiple sources of energy and probably always will. They may have to pay more for it but they won’t do without. There are other people to whom the energy shortage may soon become a matter of life and death. I am hoping and praying that this crisis gets resolved sooner rather than later. After all, we are all God’s children, the rich and the poor alike, and everyone should have access to a bit of light to hold off the darkness and the things that go “bump” in the night.

For those of us who care about all of the brethren I repeat the words of Mathew 5:16, "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your fine works and give glory to your Father who is in the heaven:"

This little light o' mine, I'm goin' let it shine,
This little light o' mine, I'm goin' let it shine,
This little light o' mine, I'm goin' let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.