YES! But How? :: Noxious Weeds

Noxious weeds, cloth vs. disposable diapers, candle soot damage.


My husband and I have a little piece of land in Montana. I would like to leave it alone as much as possible. Now it has gotten Napa weed (I think) all over. The neighbors say this is not a native plant and will destroy the other vegetation. They are trying to talk my husband into spraying it. What are the alternatives? —R. Sant'Anna, Chicago, Illinois

The editor of this column objects to attempts at eradicating non-native ‘noxious invasive aliens.' (She claims to be one herself.) Although getting along with your (human) neighbors may be the overriding concern here, this curmudgeonly editor questions the assumption that we can or should take responsibility for policing the environment to fit our ideals.

Nevertheless, we contacted Marty Malone, a Park County, Montana, Extension Agent, who said the plant is probably knapweed (Centaurea species). Knapweed is a naturalized European perennial with tough wiry stems, small thistle-like flowers, and a bitter taste. The plant is common and spreading throughout the West.

Lacking local predators and thriving in disturbed soils, it can out-compete native vegetation. If you don't do anything about it, you may find yourself with nothing but knapweed growing on your land (or even, by law, be charged for the cost for others to spray it with poison).

The Montana Weed Control Association ( can assist with weed identification, eradication techniques and alternatives to chemical spraying. Retailers such as Biological Control of Weeds (BCW) ( sell insects that are natural predators of offending weeds. For knapweed, they recommend several weevils (Cyphocleonus achates, Larinus obtusus and L. minutus). Although biological controls are non-chemical, they do release yet another non-native species into the environment. But, according to Leona Poritz of BCW, “insects go through a rigorous host specificity screening to ensure that they feed only on the targeted plant.” Washington's Okanogan County has had great success with these bugs.

With this plant, our staffer who worked several seasons pulling weeds for the National Park Service says, hand weeding does work over time. While some plants grow from underground runners and are so tenacious that poison may on balance seem the only alternative, the good thing about knapweed is that it grows from a single tap root and pulls up fairly easily when soil is moist. One of the bad things about knapweed, however, is that it is somewhat toxic (it is poisonous to cattle and horses, which may be why your neighbors dislike it), so you should always wear gloves when pulling it.

For readers dealing with other invasive weeds, visit the Center for Invasive Plant Management website at or contact your county Cooperative Extension program or local Master Gardeners

–Sara Lingafelter


I am stymied by the new-age-old question: cloth or disposable diapers? Some say that the water required to wash cloth diapers is more damaging to our planet than the waste associated with disposables. What do you think? —Alison, San Francisco, California

Cloth. Washing cloth diapers at home uses 50 to 70 gallons of water every three days, according to Mothering Magazine, “about the same as a toilet-trained child or adult flushing the toilet five to six times a day.” “It takes 440 to 880 pounds of wood pulp and 286 pounds of plastic (including packaging) per year to supply one baby with disposable diapers,” according to Environment Canada. Dioxin, a chemical on the EPA's list of most toxic cancer-linked chemicals, is a by-product of this manufacturing process. By contrast, less than 22 pounds of cotton is enough to supply one baby with reusable cotton diapers for two years. A study by the British Landbank Consultancy determined that, factoring in cotton growing, the manufacture and use of disposable diapers requires twice the water use and three times the energy of cloth diapers. (See

Disposables also pose risks during use. The wood pulp, plastic, sodium polyacrylate (which turns urine into gel), dyes, and fragrances in continual contact with a baby's skin worry some of those who study infertility and hormone-mimicking chemicals. Several components of disposables (toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, styrene, and isopropylbenzene), according to a report in the October 1999 issue of the Archives of Environmental Health, are bronchial irritants associated with asthma.

Each year, 18 billion disposable diapers burden US landfills, combining plastic, wood pulp, fecal matter and urine, and biohazards, including live vaccines from immunizations. The bundled fecal matter requires 200-500 years to decompose and can contaminate ground water. In contrast, waste water from washing diapers is treated, at least in most municipalities.

Finally, Jane McConnell in Mothering Magazinein June 1998 notes that babies in cloth diapers are changed more frequently, a factor that reduces diaper rash. As a bonus, she says that a child in cloth diapers actually knows when he or she is wet, and hence, is toilet trained earlier. Given all this, I'd choose cloth as the bottom line.

–Anna McClain


I just figured out that I have candle soot damage throughout my home. I originally assumed that my air ducts must be dirty so I called a professional to clean them. That did not solve my problem and things seemed to be getting worse. I thought the appliances in my kitchen might be the problem but then I discovered soot everywhere, on computers, televisions, and medicine bottles. It has ruined pretty much everything in my home. No one I called could find the source of the problem. Out of desperation I looked up “black soot” on the Internet and found several articles describing candle soot damage that exactly matched what I was experiencing. Do you have any additional information on candle soot? I am concerned about how my children's health is affected by breathing soot. I am also concerned about the property damage and would appreciate any help in aiding my homeowner's insurance claim. —A Reader, North Carolina

Candle soot is a growing but overlooked indoor air pollution issue that is worsened by today's airtight modern homes and the popularity of scented candles. According to Ron Bailey, a Florida testing engineer, just four candles burning for 15 hours caused significant soot deposits on walls, drapes, and appliances in a new model home. Soot can travel through ductwork then stick to surfaces throughout a home. University of Missouri experts concluded that calling in professional fire restorers may be the only way to eradicate soot damage. (See listings for ‘carpet and upholstery cleaners' or ‘fire and water damage restoration' in your telephone directory.)

All yellow (vs. blue) flames emit incompletely burned residue (soot) but some candles are worse than others. Heavily scented or soft-to-the-touch candles contain high amounts of oils that do not burn completely. Petroleum-based (paraffin) candles also emit volatile organic compounds (toluene, benzene, and naphthalene, among others). According to a study for the California Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, candle soot emissions were not measurably carcinogenic, however, benzene is a probable carcinogen. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) particles are emitted by candles (as well as wood fires). These can trigger respiratory ailments. Finally, some candles have wicks that contain lead, a heavy metal that can cause learning disability and behavioral disorders. After less than a year of burning fragrant candles, Cathy Flanders found that her Texas home had 27 times more than the Housing Urban Development permissible lead deposits and that her son's blood tests revealed elevated lead levels.

Choose 100% beeswax candles with all-cotton wicks or candles made of soy, bayberry, other vegetable waxes, or high quality paraffin that are advertised as “smokeless” to minimize your soot problem. Examine wicks and avoid those than appear to contain metal. Be sure to straighten and trim wicks to 1/4” and keep candles away from drafts to help them burn cleanly. For your aromatherapy sessions, put a few drops of the essential oil of your favorite scent into a small dish.

Insurance companies frequently exclude soot buildup from their “sudden and accidental occurrence” provisions. The website suggests that before contacting your insurance agent, you identify the candle manufacturer and retailer and make notes of how and when you burned the candles and what damage resulted. In the interest of your fellow candle consumers, you may wish to file a report with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission ( Washington DC, 20207-0001.

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.