Heavy Incense Burning May Increase Respiratory Cancer Risk

Armen Hareyan's picture
Incense Burning and Cancer Risk

Frequent burning of incense are found to be at higher risk for developing respiratory tract cancers.

Incense is being used by most Asian nations for religious and spiritual ceremonies, but are also widespread in Western countries nowadays. For Asian families it is traditional to burn incense regularly, and their homes are always fulfilled with different sweet scents. However, despite of pleasant scents, incenses can also lead to cancer.

Here I would like to make a point saying that I have followed that the incense used in Christian churches seem to smell different than the incense that I smell in Asian families and particularly that I have seen being sold in gas stations, run by Asian owners. Therefore, more clarification is needed to find out what type of incense may be linked to respiratory tract cancer risk.


Incenses are generally made of "fragrant plant materials, tree bark, resins, roots, flowers and essential oils". While burning, these materials are known to produce cancer causing gases, such as benzene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. This is the first of its kind research showing that inhaling these substances regularly can lead to respiratory tract cancers.

A team of researchers from Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen examined 61,320 Singapore Chinese men and women aged from 45 to 74 during a 12 year period of time. Study participants were checked for different types of cancer and were found to be healthy at the beginning of the study. They were questioned about their incense burning habits and were also adjusted according to smoking, dieting and alcohol drinking habits to exclude other risk factors. Researchers found that heavy incense users are at 80% higher risk for upper respiratory tract cancers, than non-users.

By the end of the study there were 325 participants who developed upper respiratory tract cancers, such as nasal, oral or throat cancer, and 821 participants who developed lung cancer. Researchers concluded, that upper respiratory tract cancers, apart from nasopharyngeal cancer, are linked to heavy incense use, but lung cancer is not. Squamous cell carcinoma rates were also high among incense users.

The link between incense burning and upper respiratory tract cancers is evident and this study's figures are statistically significant. This is why further researchers need to be conducted to examine different types of incenses and define limitations for incense use. I would like to repeat this, more studies need to be conducted on the types of incenses that are linked to increase respiratory tract cancer risk.

Incense use and cancer is a sensitive topic as incense is used in many religious ceremonies. However, it is important to note that incense can be made of different materials and it should be clearly defined which types of incense may be linked to cancer. The Catholic Encyclopedia has the following definition of the nature of incense used in the church "In ancient times incense was furnished by two trees, viz. the Boswellia sacra of Arabia Felix, and the Boswellia papyrifera of India, both of which belong to the Terebinthian family. Mention is made of it in Num., vii, 14; Deut., xxxiii, 10, etc. It was procured from the bark much as gum is obtained at present. To enhance the fragrance and produce a thicker smoke various foreign elements were added (cf. Josephus, "Bell. Jud.", V, 5). These ingredients generally numbered four, but sometimes as many as thirteen, and the task of blending them in due proportion was assigned under the Old-Law ordinances to particular families (Cant., iii, 6)."