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Burning Incense is a Health Risk
What could be more natural than incense, a sweet-smelling substance made of plant matter such as flowers, bark, roots, and essential oils? Incense has been burned in religious ceremonies for thousands of years. Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, and pagans all use incense on their altars. However, new studies show that excessive use of incense can be as harmful to your respiratory tract as smoking cigarettes. If you burn the powdered incense on those little charcoal disks, the effect is even worse because of the charcoal.
Okay, full disclosure: I'm one of those pagans who have always hated incense. I mean, I love the way it looks with its mysterious blue or gray swirls of smoke coming up from the altar. And I even like the way it smells after it is extinguished but when it still permeates a room, especially if it is something light such as sandalwood or even a coconut incense I sampled once that made my meditation area smell like the suntan lotion display in a surf shop. But when I breathe incense floating in the air, I can feel it irritating the living daylights out of my nasal passages and throat. I stopped burning incense years ago.
Now I'm hearing about health warnings that corroborate my instinctive reaction to incense. One extensive study followed sixty thousand Chinese people for twelve years, documenting their incense-burning habits and health. Admittedly, these people burned incense much more frequently and at longer intervals than your average pagan or Wiccan does in a short ceremony. They would burn incense all day or all day and all night, probably on household shrines. The study looked at the ventilation in their houses. It also factored out the beneficial effect of their Asian diet, which is much healthier than the typical Western diet. And the study found that, "Over the next 12 years, 325 men and women developed cancer of the upper respiratory tract, such as nasal, oral or throat cancer. Another 821 developed lung cancer." See http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/08/25/us-incense-cancers-idUSPAT56944620080825
Okay, so what does that mean for your average pagan who burns incense at most twice a month (full moon and new moon esbats) and for eight sabbats? You're probably safe but you should have a lot of ventilation to be sure. Open your windows and use a fan to circulate the incense-laden air outside. But if you have small children or infants in your house, you probably shouldn't burn any incense around them because their developing bodies and immune systems are much more vulnerable to contaminants. The safest alternative is to heat up essential oils on a stand with a tea light underneath to release their scent in place of incense, or just not to use anything at all.
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