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Incense as a health hazard -- is nothing sacred?

August 26, 2008 | 10:08 am

NewincensePut it out! Put it out! Sure, that incense smells nice, but what's it doing to your body? Increasing the risk of cancer. Maybe.

Researchers in Denmark studied the effects of long-term incense exposure on 61,000 Singapore Chinese ages 45 to 74. They found that burning incense, an important part of many cultures' religious rituals, almost doubles the risk of squamous cell carcinomas in the upper respiratory tract (which includes the tongue, mouth, sinus and largyneal areas).

Here's the full story, as published in U.S. News & World Report. And here's one of the magazine's bloggers wondering about the health effects of going to church. (As it pertains to incense exposure, that is.)

The California Environmental Protection Agency's Air Resources Board probably wouldn't be surprised. It's long lumped incense-burning as among potentially problematic sources of indoor air pollution. Here's what it has to say, in table form. Look under "sources."

Working yourself up into a nice panic? Check out this review, published this spring in Clinical and Molecular Allergy, explaining the major types of air pollutants in incense smoke and their toxicological effects. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, anyone? Aldehydes? Diethylphthlate?

I like a good health scare as much as anyone, but the U.S. News & World Report article wisely points out that the new study, published in the Oct. 1 issue of Cancer, is not conclusive. The study was population-based and, as one researcher said: "I think very few people fill up their room with incense."

Besides, not to minimize the problem of upper respiratory tract cancers, but incense smoke didn't  seem to raise the risk of lung cancer.

You can light back up now. (Assuming you don't have asthma, of course.)

-- Tami Dennis

Photo credit: Karen Tapia-Anderson / Los Angeles Times

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