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Lamp Oil: Shedding Light on Safety

Traditional oil lamps in Hindu temple. Small round dish filled with lamp oil and a wick.

Lamp oil is popular in households, especially as the weather gets colder and we move into the winter months. With a warm ambient glow, humans have used lamp oil for centuries to light their surroundings. However, it’s essential to consider the safety and risks of having lamp oil in your home.

At the Missouri Poison Center, we receive calls asking about the safety of lamp oil or what to do if someone swallows it. So, let’s shed some light on this topic.

What is lamp oil made of?

Lamp oil is usually a combination of chemicals called hydrocarbons and sometimes alcohols and fragrances. It has a water-like consistency and is colorless or has a color added to it.

Kerosene and paraffin are the two most common types of oil homeowners or campers use for lamps. Kerosene is a type of oil that is sometimes used in lamps but often causes more soot and smoke than other types of products. Paraffin is usually more refined and distilled, resulting in less soot. Both are called hydrocarbons and are highly flammable.

Is lamp oil toxic?

Most lamp oil is made from paraffin, which is usually a low-risk hazard if someone swallows a small amount. However, not all lamp oils are made with paraffin, and they may have other chemicals that could cause poisoning. Always make sure to look at the ingredient list on the packaging before purchasing a product. 

Regardless of ingredients, even paraffin oil can cause symptoms such as:

  • Upset stomach and diarrhea
  • Irritation to the mouth and throat
  • Coughing, choking, and difficulty breathing
  • And aspiration (liquid slipping down the wrong “pipe”) into the lungs

The problem with lamp oil is its remarkable ability to “go down the wrong way” if someone tries to swallow some. A child may take a sip from a container that’s left sitting out, thinking the brightly colored oil is juice. The liquid enters the lungs instead of the stomach, causing them to cough and choke. Once in the lungs, it seems to spread everywhere in them at once. The delicate lung tissue reacts to the chemical and develops chemical pneumonia. It is as dangerous, maybe more dangerous, than the kind of pneumonia caused by germs. 

If someone swallows lamp oil and is experiencing difficulty breathing, call 911 immediately.

Old fashioned lantern in darkness. Light concept.The difference between kerosene vs. paraffin lamp oil

Kerosene and paraffin are the two most common lamp oils on the market today. Kerosene burns brighter but produces an odor. While paraffin burns cleaner, producing less soot and pollutants.

What is kerosene oil?

Kerosene oil is a clear liquid distilled from petroleum. This oil is a type of paraffin oil, but the two have major differences. Kerosene is commonly used in lamps because it produces a bright yellow flame. There are two primary types of kerosene that homeowners and campers use in lamps: red kerosene and K-1 kerosene. 

Red kerosene produces an odor and will leave soot on the wick of your lamp. Do not burn red kerosene indoors, as the red dye could be an irritant and harmful. If you use red kerosene, use it outdoors or only in an area with plenty of ventilation.

K-1 Kerosene is the more common grade of kerosene oil. Most major retail stores have this oil for purchase. It is a form of kerosene that is made for at-home products like space heaters and lamps. Yet, K-1 Kerosene contains chemicals like sulfur and other impurities. These elements may produce strong, foul vapors when burned in a lamp.

What is paraffin oil?

The most common lamp oil is paraffin oil. This is an odorless, flammable hydrocarbon also derived from petroleum. Paraffin oil is clear but is also sold in different colors and with fragrances. Unlike kerosene, paraffin doesn’t burn as brightly, but it is refined, meaning that paraffin does not have as many of the impurities as kerosene oil. Paraffin oil burns cleaner and puts fewer pollutants in the air, which makes it a popular choice for indoor lamps.

Are lamp oil fumes toxic?

In all cases of lamps and candles, it’s important to know what they are made of before burning and releasing fumes in your home. Knowing if someone is sensitive and may react to fragrances is also important. But, if your lamp has paraffin oil, the fumes are usually rated as a low toxic risk. Kerosene oil, especially red kerosene, can produce a foul odor that can irritate the lungs and throat. 

What to do if someone is irritated by fumes?

If someone is experiencing symptoms of irritation from burning lamp oil, move them outside or away from the lamp into fresh air. Ventilate the room by opening windows. If the person continues to cough or experiences breathing difficulties, call the Missouri Poison Center or 911 right away.

How to prevent exposure to lamp oil

It is common for children to swallow lamp oil because they thought it was water or a beverage. To reduce the risk of exposure, store the oil in its original container. When not using the lamp oil, place it somewhere high where children cannot see it or reach it.   Never leave a paraffin lamp unattended in the reach of a child. 

What to do if you have swallowed lamp oil 

If you or someone in your home swallows lamp oil and they are not coughing or choking, call the Missouri Poison Center right away at 1-800-222-1222 for specific instructions. If they are coughing or choking, the oil may have slipped into their lungs, causing aspiration. Call 911 immediately if they are in distress and have difficulty breathing. 

The Missouri Poison Center is here to answer any questions or concerns you may have about an exposure to lamp oil. Our certified poison experts are available 24/7, every day of the year, to help you.

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