Study Highlights Potential Danger of Incense

August 27, 2008 07:38 AM
by Emily Coakley
Incense, an aromatic often used in religious ceremonies, has been linked to certain types of cancer. Some are already looking for a less potent variety of incense.

‘Significant public health implications’

A 12-year study of more than 60,000 Chinese people living in Singapore has discovered a link between frequent incense burning and cancers in the upper respiratory system, Reuters reports.

The study authors wrote in the journal Cancer: “This association is consistent with a large number of studies identifying carcinogens in incense smoke, and given the widespread and sometimes involuntary exposure to smoke from burning incense, these findings carry significant public health implications.”

But the news around incense isn’t entirely bad. A study published earlier this year in The FASEB Journal (that of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) and reported in Medical News Today, said the smoke in one type, frankincense, helps alleviate anxiety and depression.

“Perhaps Marx wasn’t too wrong when he called religion the opium of the people: morphine comes from poppies, cannabinoids from marijuana, and LSD from mushrooms; each of these has been used in one or another religious ceremony,” said Gerald Weismann, editor-in-chief of FASEB, according to Medical News-Today. “This study also provides a biological explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that have persisted across time, distance, culture, language, and religion—burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over!”

It’s not yet clear whether the Cancer study will have any effect on the use of incense in temples and churches, given that religious leaders in the United States are increasingly adapting tradition to the needs of their followers, according to a Virginian-Pilot story posted on the site redOrbit.

Besides asking for gluten-free communion wafers, which are now available, people are looking for less smoky incense.

Mark Gould, owner of the Religious Supply Center in Iowa, told the Virginian-Pilot: “We actually get calls where they ask for smokeless incense, which is kind of a funny one, if you think about it, because it doesn’t exist. We do, however, have something where you can still visualize the smoke but it’s not—and I don’t know if ‘offensive’ is the word—it’s not as strong a smell.”

Is religion hazardous to your health?

Ben Harder, a science journalist at U.S. News, wondered whether he should have deeply inhaled incense burned at a funeral Mass a couple of years ago, given the Cancer study. He points out that incense burned in Catholic churches may be different than what the study participants burned, and that people in America may have far less exposure to incense when they only encounter it at church than those studied. But he asked:

“Still, doesn’t the finding suggest certain rituals involving incense may be hazardous to the respiratory health of their observant followers?”

Background: Study finds carcinogens in incense smoke

In 2001, the magazine New Scientist reported on a Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology study that said incense smoke was filled with “cancer causing chemicals.” That study tested air samples in and around a Taiwanese temple and found a high concentration of a group of carcinogenic substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

One of the study’s authors, Ta Chang Lin, told New Scientist: “We truly hope that incense burning brings only spiritual comfort, without any physical discomfort. There is a potential cancer risk. We just cannot say how serious it is.”

He also said he and the other study authors were concerned for the people who worked at the Temples.

Related Topic: How incense is made

Reference: findingDulcinea Cancer Web Guide


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