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Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Incense and Candles Can Pollute
By Jack Dini @ 1:06 AM :: 4887 Views :: Environment

Incense and Candles Can Pollute

by Jack Dini

Incense and candles may create a tranquil environment but the fumes that they produce are not so good for your lungs. Smoke produced by burning incense and candles can be worse than the pollution found next to a busy road. (1)

The burning of incense releases high levels of some chemicals associated with lung cancer. Incense used primarily for religious, medicinal and meditative purposes was found to create air quality environments hazardous to human health. A set of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are of primary concern. While organic and often aromatic, PAH include carcinogenic chemicals such as components of benzene and the chemical used in mothballs. (2)

The issue is particularly noticeable in places of worship. Researchers in Taiwan found that the levels of benzopyrene, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) which causes cancer were up to 45 times higher in a temple where incense was burned than in homes where residents smoked tobacco. Total suspended particles were three times higher in the temples than at a near-by traffic intersection. (3) Other potent pollutants given off by burning incense include benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde. (4)

A similar study done in The Netherlands found that the air quality of two Maastricht churches had 20 times the amount of chemicals compared to an intersection. (2)

Then there's the issue of mind alteration. Diane Ackerman reports that the chanting and calm, incense-thick air puts us into a hypnotic state so there we are open and vulnerable. This is not surprising since chemical analysis of incense reveals that it contains mind-altering steroids. (5)

Carmen Drahl adds, “Arieh Moussaieff from Rehovot, Israel, says frankincense affects mouse brains in a way that provokes fascinating questions about the intersection of culture and chemistry. Most present-day worshippers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning. But the researchers found evidence that a compound in frankincense resin exhibits depression and anxiety dampening effects in mice. The team also demonstrated that the compound diterpenoid called incensole acetate, activates an ion channel involved in warmth perception in the skin. Although the results haven't been confirmed in humans it is possible that incensole acetate augments the euphoric feeling produced during religious functions. Given that incense is one of the common threads in most major world religions and that immense symbolism is attached to incense burning, the Israeli teams' findings shouldn't be unexpected.” (6)

It's not just churches. Burning incense is a popular cultural practice in many parts of the world.

One example: Incense is burned weekly in about 94 percent of households in the United Arab Emirates as a cultural practice to perfume clothing and air and to remove cooking odors. Since people there spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, indoor pollution has become a source of increasing concern. (7)


Candles are also part of this issue regarding pollution. Besides dust particles, another issue of concern with candles is their wicks. Some candles have lead wicks and when burned, the metal essentially boils off into the air and quickly cools into tiny specks of dust. (8)

Kate Ravilious reports that peak particle concentrations in a church coincided with peaks in candle burnings, and the concentration of particles in the small size range (0.5 to 1.0 um) were more than 10 times greater than those found outside, despite the fact that there was a busy road next to the church. Also, black-carbon levels were nearly 12 times higher than outdoors after mass, coinciding with the burning of incense and candles. She adds, “ Exposure to pollution at these levels is almost certainly not good for human health. Incense and candles can emit ultra-fine, lung-damaging particulate matter that's capable of penetrating deep into the lungs said one researcher.” (1)

And it isn't just people who are suffering. The air pollution is also damaging to artwork including ancient frescoes, textiles and rare books often found inside the churches. Nitrogen oxides and ozone cause colors to fade and decrease the strength of materials, while soot deposits directly onto the paintings. (1)

One last factoid about candles: A 2001 report stated that each year in the US, candle usage causes more than 12,000 fires with 170 associated fatalities. (9)


Jack Dini is author of Challenging Environmental Mythology.  He has also written for American Council on Science and Health, Environment & Climate News, and Hawaii Reporter. Jack can be reached at:  jdini@comcast.net


1. Kate Ravilious, “Churches may be more polluted than roads,” environmentalresearchweb.com, October 12, 2010

2. M. T. Whitney, “Burning incense may expose people to toxic chemicals,” naturalnews.com, February 12, 2007

3. Clodauh O'Brien, “Holy smoke,” New Scientist, 171, 5 , August 4, 2001

4. “Talking sense about incense and other scents,” Wellness Letter, University of California, Berkeley, 17, 5, February 2001

5. Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of Love, (New York, Random House, 1996), 322

6. Carmen Drahl, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” Chemical & Engineering News: Science & Technology, December 22, 2008

7. Rebeccaa Cohen et al., “Hazard assessment of United Arab Emirates (UAE) incense smoke,” Science of the Total Environment, 176, 458, 2013

8. Hannah Holmes, The Secret Life of Dust, (New York, John Wiley & Sons, 2001), 169

9. “CPSC releases new report on residential fires. Latest data show record number of fatalities from candle fires,” US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Release #01-176, June 21, 2001


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