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New Cancer Culprit: Incense?

Snuff the incense, dude. It might give you, like, cancer.

A study to appear in the October 1 issue of the journal Cancer looked at the incidence of respiratory-tract cancers among 61,320 Chinese residents of Singapore, where incense-burning is a big part of daily life. Those who used the most incense, the study found, had the highest rates of upper-respiratory-tract squamous cell carcinomas. The study found no link between incense use and lung cancer, though.

Incense contains carcinogens, including polyaromatic hydrocarbons, carbonyls, and benzene; it also spews lots of potentially harmful particulate matter into the air. Its heavy use in indoor settings might pose the same kind of risk as secondhand tobacco smoke is believed to do; health professionals worry both about the people doing the actual smoking and burning and about the people they happen to live with.

Here's the part where I'm supposed to raise earnest questions about whether burning incense in the yoga studio or in your living room once in a while is likely to make you sick. Based on this study's findings, it's unlikely that occasional exposure to incense smoke is likely to do you harm. As one of the study's authors, Jian-Min Yuan of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, says, "'Incense' includes a mixed bag of incenses with different chemical composition, and some of them may impose health risk but others may not. Incenses used by Singaporean Chinese may be different from those used in the US and elsewhere. Before we understand the specific chemicals in incenses used in Singapore and more research on incense use and upper respiratory tract cancer in other populations, it is premature to provide any advice in terms of cancer risk reduction or prevention. On the other hand, no or minimal exposure to incense smoke renders no harm."

I'm more concerned about one of incense's key constituencies in the United States: people, especially teens and young adults, who light the fragrant sticks and cones to mask the smell of their marijuana smoke. I never was a pot-smoker myself, but even I knew, back in the 1970s, that among people my age, where there was incense, there often was marijuana. A quick Google survey of "stoner" sites suggests that pot-smokers today still use their Nag Champa to provide cover.

It's not clear whether marijuana smoke itself raises lung-cancer risk. A big review of existing medical literature on the topic published in 2006 found insufficient evidence to support such a link.

But a smallish study (including 79 lung-cancer patients and 324 healthy people as controls) out of New Zealand earlier this year, though, found that, in terms of lung-cancer risk, smoking a single joint a day had the same effect as smoking 20 cigarettes; heavy pot-smokers had six times the risk of lung cancer that non-pot-smokers faced.

Food for thought, man. And I don't mean the munchies.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 29, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
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Oh, come on. Rove scare tactics don't scare the Takoma Park crowd! A threat from incense? Please.

Posted by: Yeen! | August 29, 2008 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Oh no, even a good Catholic altar boy such as I was put at risk for lighting and swinging around the incense at Midnight Mass, Christmas after Christmas.

Seriously, there's probably more danger in the US from people setting afire to their homes and apartments from burning incense and discarded matchsticks.

Posted by: John Seng | August 29, 2008 4:55 PM | Report abuse

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