Author: Surabhi Bhatt
Burning incense is an age-old practice in many cultures’ religious and spiritual ceremonies — especially in Asia — and its use has gained popularity in Western countries as well. Researchers at the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, however, have raised concerns about the possible health risks associated with long-term exposure to incense.
Led by Dr. Jeppe T. Friborg of the Epidemiology Department, the study followed more than 61,000 cancer-free Singaporean Chinese men and women between the ages of 45 and 74 from 1993 to 2005. Participants were asked to report on their average incense use in their homes, including how often they burned it and for how long. During the study’s 12-year duration, 325 men and women developed cancer of the upper respiratory tract, such as nasal, oral or throat cancer. Another 821 developed lung cancer.
Although the overall risk of lung cancer was not found to increase with incense use, the study suggested that greater incense use can lead to a heightened risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma of the lung, which is the second most common type of lung cancer. Some supporting evidence may be that the burning materials from which incense is derived — including oils and plant materials — have been found to produce potentially cancer-causing substances, including benzene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. Friborg’s study, though, is the first to link long-term incense use to an increased risk of developing cancer.