The Very Real Danger of Lamp Oil


Lamp oil contains hydrocarbons; a dangerous substance that is ubiquitous in homes. Hydrocarbons can be found in everything from nail polish remover, to furniture cleaner, to automotive products. It is present in gasoline and kerosene and some cosmetics. Ironically, it is also in baby oil.

It can be deadly when ingested.

Lamp oil – along with lighter fluid and kerosene – is a major source of hydrocarbon poisoning in young children. Lamp oil is used in items like tiki torches and decorative oil based candles. Accordingly, these ingestions occur more frequently in the summer months when these products are more in use. 

Small amounts of hydrocarbons can be toxic (a mouthful or less). Hydrocarbons are very “volatile” and can easily enter the lungs where they cause severe inflammation or “pneumonitis”.   Symptoms such as coughing, choking and fever can happen within minutes to hours after ingestion.  Hydrocarbons can sometimes affect the brain as well, causing lethargy, or even coma. Hydrocarbons are the third most common cause of poisoning death in children, which is usually from respiratory failure. 

The “typical” victim of lamp oil ingestion is less than 5 yrs. of age. Toddlers from 1-2  years old are at the greatest risk, and boys outnumber girls.  There is some suggestion that toddlers who have a behavioral history of eating non-food items are more at risk. Even without this predilection though, lamp oil ingestions are, quite literally, and accident waiting to happen. Lamp oil is often sold as a liquid and can look very much like a beverage, such as apple juice. Sometimes they are in attractive containers (think candles) set on display on household surfaces. In addition to looking nice, they may smell nice too.

In the early 2000s, the Consumer Product and Safety Commission (CPSC) mandated that household products that contain 10% hydrocarbons or more be in child resistant packaging. Unfortunately, child resistant is not child proof. In fact, a 2013 study found most children who ingested lamp oil did so from the manufactures original container! Also, most ingestions happen at home and while an adult is present.  These facts speak to how prevalent and innocent appearing these products seem. 

The best protection for those homes with small children is to have as few hydrocarbon containing products present as possible. Get rid of purely decorative products.  The National Capital Poison Center description of household hydrocarbons as “slippery and dangerous” may help you assess the likelihood that a substance contains hydrocarbon.  When using these - or any household chemical - ALWAYS reclose the cap immediately and lock them in an out of reach place. If ingestion occurs, call a poison center immediately.

  2. Jolliff et al.  Pediatric Hydrocarbon-Related Injuries in the United States:  2000-2009.  PEDIATRICS Volume 131, Number 6, June 2013, 139-147
  3. Sheikh et al.  Characterizing Risk Factors for Pediatric Lamp Oil Product Exposures.  Clinical Toxicology (2013) 51, 871-878