Updated 04 September 2014

Incense: not so sweet

It may smell pleasant and seem innocuous enough, but burning incense contributes to indoor pollution.

All smoke, however sweet-smelling, is unhealthy if inhaled -- and the smoke from burning incense is no exception.

A recent study which exposed lung cells to incense smoke was found to produce an inflammatory response similar to when these cells react to cigarette smoke, which triggers asthma and other respiratory problems.

Previous research has linked incense smoke with health problems such as eye, nose, throat and skin irritation; respiratory symptoms, including asthma; headaches; exacerbation of cardiovascular disease; and changes in lung-cell structure that might lead to cancer.

Indoor air pollution is a serious health issue

Indoor pollution, which often gets eclipsed as an environmental health issue by outdoor air pollution, is of great concern to the medical community. Most of us 21st century humans spend the majority of our lives indoors (up to 90% in some cases), so the quality of the air we breathe inside can have a considerable impact on our health.

Those most at risk are people exposed to pollutants, including deadly carbon monoxide (CO), from biomass-burning cooking stoves and open hearths. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 1 million people a year die from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) because of this indoor air pollution risk.

Burning incense releases similar pollutants, including CO.

On a positive note, the scent of incense has happy, calming associations for many people, and is an important element of several traditional religious ceremonies and festivals. Some research suggests that the scent of frankincense, a component of some kinds of incense, helps reduce anxiety and depression Nonetheless, it's probably better to keep incense for occasional use, and not as an everyday way to mask household odours.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor

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Image of burning incense: Shutterstock

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