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Burning Joss Sticks can cause Cancer

Ian MacKinnon in Bangkok Wednesday July 30 2008

offering incense in a temple

Burning joss sticks lit as an offering in shrines and temples fill the air with cancer-causing toxins that are every bit as deadly as traffic fumes and cigarette smoke, says Dr Manoon Leechawengwong.

Dr Manoon, who has just completed a two-year study of temple workers tasked with clearing the smouldering sticks, found the cocktail of chemicals in the smoke put them at risk of leukaemia, lung, blood and bladder cancers.

“One joss stick creates the same amount of cancer-causing chemicals at one cigarette,” said Dr Manoon, who led the research. “I knew there would be some carcinogens, but I was surprised by the levels.”

Joss sticks are a type of incense used in worship in many Asian countries. In Buddhism they are believed to aid spiritual communication and serve as an offering.

Dr Manoon’s study was conducted among 40 workers in three temples at Ayutthaya, Chachoengsao and Samut Prakan, sites chosen deliberately far from Bangkok’s traffic pollution. The findings were compared with another 25 people living in a joss-stick free environment.


Temple workers were exposed to high levels of benzene, also known as petroleum ether, related to leukaemia; butadiene involved in blood cancer; and benzo[a]pyrene that can cause lung, bladder and skin cancers.

The level of benzene in the temple workers was four times higher than normal, butadiene was 260 times higher, and benzo[a]pyrene – the most dangerous carcinogen – 63 times greater.

Analysis of the temple workers blood and urine samples discovered damage to their DNA, with a correspondingly lower capacity of their bodies to repair that damage.

“We know from our study that there’s DNA damage,” said Dr Manoon. “But what we don’t know is if they will develop cancer. Certainly they have a greater risk. It’s like smoking. Not all smokers get cancer, it’s about 20% .”

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Blogger Fong Yoong Kheong offers the following practical solutions:

Solution 1 : Open Windows to ensure proper air flow, so as to reduce the amount that you have to breathe in.

Solution 2 : Wear a N95 Mask or Chemical Protection Mask. Like most people, he thought this will be simple. Just don a mask to prevent the inhalation of toxic substances. But unless you have a fit test equipment and do a proper fit-test, the assurance of protection can be an illusion.

Solution 3 : Learn from SAF – Simulate the smoke. (I really like this one)

Solution 4 : Install the Urn outside your house

Solution 5 : Buy premium grade Incense. They cost much higher but they are made of premium grade of wood and does not release toxic smoke.

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