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Awareness Needed Of Incense Health Risks

Updated on Aug 27, 2008 – SCMP

Burning incense at home is a traditional way for many Chinese around the world to present offerings to the gods and show devotion to them. But a new medical study has shown that worshippers may be sacrificing far more than they realise – their health. The research, published in the medical journal Cancer, finds that people who are regularly exposed to indoor incense smoke have a greater chance of developing upper respiratory tract cancer. It is the most authoritive study to date, having tracked, for up to 12 years, more than 61,000 Singaporean Chinese who are engaged in the religious practice.

Common sense ought to indicate as much, given what we know about the health risks posed by second-hand cigarette smoke and air pollution. Nevertheless, the danger has not been widely exposed. The findings need to be publicised, especially in parts of the world where the burning rituals are common in many people’s homes. Two issues are involved: product safety and lack of awareness.

Homes in Hong Kong are on average smaller than those in Singapore, so a higher level of accumulated cancer-causing substances may be trapped indoors. It is not uncommon here for families with three generations to live in the same flat, so children are especially vulnerable. There was a time when many households had small shrines set up outside the door with incense offerings. But, in recent years, tougher fire safety regulations and better estate management have forced people to put the shrines inside their homes. It would be impractical to ask people to stop an age-old tradition, but health authorities should consider introducing advertisements or public announcements to warn people of the danger and educate them on the need for proper ventilation.

Meanwhile, manufacturers should be made to produce safer incense products. Past research has shown many types of incense give off benzene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which can cause cancer. It ought to be possible to make safer incense that minimises or even eliminates these substances when burning. The religious practice, after all, seeks blessings from the gods for health and safety. It would be a shame to achieve the opposite.

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