Warning: worship may be harmful to your health.

Incense.  Its use in Christian worship has a mandate going all the way back to Exodus, and it is a key symbol in the liturgy for several denominations.  But in various places now its use has become contentious, for a variety of reasons.  I take no issue with the theological implications of using incense in worship.  Although I’m not particularly fond of it myself, I understand that it adds to the richness of the sensory and symbolic context in which people encounter God.

However, I do take issue on pastoral grounds; and that because the use of incense releases into the surrounding air a complex concoction of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, benzene, toluene, xylenes, aldehydes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, as well as various particulates (I may have missed some toxins from that list, too).  This makes being in the vicinity of incense used in worship not unlike passive smoking (without the addictive properties of nicotine).  Here is what a quick survey of the medical journals turned up as possible negative effects of prolonged or regular exposure to incense used in worship:

– Allergic contact dermatitis
– Carcinogenic/mutagenic effects (increased risk of cancer, particularly carcinomas of the lung and respiratory tract, but studies have also reported possible links to brain tumours and childhood leukaemia)
– Development of allergic rhinitis and asthma, and the triggering of symptoms in people already suffering these conditions
– Higher risks of allergy in children of gestating mothers (indicated by elevated cord blood IgE levels)
– Inflammation of the respiratory tract and lungs

That’s a formidable list.  It seems to me that a desire to be welcoming and inclusive to all potential worshippers, no matter how allergic or asthmatic, as well as care for the health of the congregation and particularly those who will have high exposure (servers, clergy and choir have been identified as being particularly at risk), would be a motivating factor for reducing incense use.

However, assuming for the moment that some individuals or congregations will not want to cease using incense, despite the health risks, what can be done to reduce those risks?  I found these suggestions in the medical literature:

– Restrict the use of incense to festivals and special occasions
– Reduce exposure time when incense is used in worship
– Ensure the building is well ventilated (open doors and windows) during and for some time after the use of incense
– Use incense of the highest purity possible, to avoid additional contaminants, and reduce the amount of harmful substances produced
– One paper did suggest that people working with incense should wear a protective mask, but somehow I am sceptical that I will see the liturgical use of face masks adopted any time soon!

I realise that this post, and these suggestions, may seem to some people disrespectful or even sacrilegious.  It’s not my intent to be insulting and hurtful.  But this information is not widely recognised, and I think it is important.  If we are well informed, we are equipped to make good decisions in our worship and in our care of one another.  I offer this brief summary in that spirit.

Because this post makes claims about published medical literature, here is a sample of relevant articles.  This is not exhaustive of the research, but simply a starting point for people who wish to verify the claims I’ve made or perhaps read further.  Oh, and I know my referencing style might be odd.  All the information’s there, I can’t be bothered fussing with meeting the requirements of a particular style guide.  Life is too short!

Al-Rawas, O.A. et al.  “Home exposure to Arabian incense (bakhour) and asthma symptoms in children: a community survey in two regions in Oman.”  BMC Pulmonary Medicine, 2009, 9:23.  Accessed at http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2466/9/23

Croxford, B and Kynigou, D.  “Carbon Monoxide Emissions from Joss or Incense Sticks.”  Indoor and Built Environment, 2005, 14, pp.277-282.

Friborg, J.T. et al. “Incense Use and Respiratory Tract Carcinomas: A Prospective Cohort Study.”  Cancer, 2008: 113, 7, pp.1676-1684.

Harder, Ben.  “Holy Smoke.”  Science News, 2006, 170:8 p116.

Hu, Ming-Tsan et al.  “Characteritization of, and health risks from, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins/dibenzofurans from incense burned in a temple.”  Science of the Total Environment, 2009, 407, pp.4870-4875.

Lin, Ta-Ching et al.  “Incense smoke: clinical, structural and molecular effects on airway disease.”  Clinical and Molecular Allergy, 2008, 6:3.  Accessed at http://www.clinicalmolecularallergy.com/content/6/1/3

See, S.W. and Balasubramanian, R.  “Characterization of fine particle emissions from incense burning.”  Building and Environment, 2011, 46, pp.1074-1080.

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This entry was posted in Liturgy.

One comment on “Warning: worship may be harmful to your health.

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