The health risks of burning incense.

I love the smell of incense.
Cedarwood, Agarwood, Sandalwood. From the expensive slow-burning Japanese sticks to boxes of the cheap but evocative Nag Champa littering the shelves of most ‘hippy dippy’ and wellness shops.

My morning routine would include the ritual of lighting a stick of incense before I sit to meditate. The aroma filling the room and anchoring me to the practice.

Unfortunately, there is a growing body of scientific evidence showing that the inhalation of incense smoke can harm your health.

A recent meta analysis (looking at the evidence from current scientific papers) titled: Health and Environmental Risks of Incense Smoke: Mechanistic Insights and Cumulative Evidence, highlights the toxic byproducts from incense-combustion.

Whilst noting that levels of toxins vary between incense brands and types, studies show that incense smoke produces four times the particulate matter of cigarettes, several poisonous gasses, volatile organic content and polyaromatic hydrocarbons of varying degrees of nastiness (see table below).

The specific health risks associated from incense burning were found to include:

  • Increased lung cancer risk in distinct populations exposed to incense (four times higher risk for those regularly burning incense for > 40 years)
  • Increased risk of bronchitis and bronchiolitis.
  • Increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.
  • Increased risk of asthma, cough and wheeze.
  • Effects on heart muscle tissue, cardiac hypertrophy and cardiac tissue damage in studies on rats.
  • Persistent inflammatory problems.
  • Decreased cognitive performance.

Additionally, the byproduct of burnt ash can also have an environmental impact when disposed of in large or accumulated quantities. The resultant powder contains high levels of Calcium and Magnesium as well as heavy metals which can impact plant and aquatic life.

Most of these studies involved a high exposure to incense smoke for a prolonged (over many years) timeframe such as in cultures or religious settings where constant incense burning is common practice.

Nevertheless, there were enough red flags here for me to cease my own incense burning completely. 
I do miss it greatly.

The authors of this paper conclude:

The major health risks posed by incense combustion are respiratory and cardiovascular complications and a substantial proportion of allergic and dermatological issues. The choice of incense brand has a significant bearing on the nature of incense-combustion products. Therefore, policymakers and users should investigate the composition of the incense brand being used for worship. Apart from this, indirect toxicity of incense-combustion end products is a menace, and there is no proper documentation on its disposal. Appropriate caution must be exercised to reduce their deleterious content so that incense by-products can be disposed of without harming the environment. Since incense use for worship is a long-standing tradition, it would be better if incense brands for this purpose were made with easily degradable constituents and atoxic fragrance additives. A crucial inference drawn from our discussion is that PM is the most significant constituent affecting health, due to its minute dimensions. Future incense manufacturing should ensure that no unburnt carbon material or residue prevails upon combustion.

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