Think twice before lighting that next stick of incense. You might be getting more than a gentle whiff of sandalwood. If a group of researchers in Taiwan is right, burning incense could be a cancer risk. This news might come as a shock to millions of Buddhists, Hindus and Christians who use incense to purify the air, set their minds at ease and treat diseases, and as part of their ceremonies and devotions.
At the Lantau Island Po Lin Monastery in Hong Kong, visitors burn about three sticks each as they pay their respects to the Buddha and their ancestors, feeding their spirits with incense, according to a spokeswoman. Others in Japan stand in front of giant vats and breat he in the scent of hundreds of incense sticks to get wise or just for good measure. “We truly hope that incense burning brings only spiritual comfort, without any physical discomfort,” Ta Chang Lin at the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan told the New Scientist magazine. But “there is a potential cancer risk. We just cannot say how serious it is.”
Smoke from burning incense is laden with cancer-causing chemicals, the researchers say. Levels of one chemical believed to cause lung cancer were 40 times higher in a badly ventilated temple in Taiwan than in houses where people smoke cigarettes. Beyond the cancer scare, incense is actually bad for the air. Incense burning creates more pollution than road traffic at a local intersection. In the smoky temple they tested, the incense emissions exceeded the standard “safe” levels for ambient air set in Taiwan.