Is the Smoke Emitted from Incense Sticks (Agarbattis) as Dangerous as Cigarettes?

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By News Desk, Neucrad Health India June 14, 2019

Many of you might be lighting incense sticks at your residence or commercial establishments twice a day invoking divine blessings. Since ancient times, philosophers of various sects have recommended the lighting of incense sticks or ‘agarbattis’ to calm the mind and enhance the concentration level. It is the reason, millions of people across the globe follow this age-old tradition. However, scientists of different countries are now challenging this practise, as many of them found harmful chemicals being released along with the incense stick smoke, which is quite similar to those present in cigarette smoke. Continue reading to know more about the negative impacts of incense stick smoke on the human body.

How did the research on incense stick smoke start?

In 2015, researchers of the South China University of Technology and staff of China Tobacco Guangdong Industrial Company conducted a study of the comparison of incense stick and cigarette smoke. They published their findings at Springer’s journal Environmental Chemistry Letters, and the general public can view it online as the study report is available on an open access basis to be peer-reviewed by fellow scientists. This practice was undertaken to prevent impartiality in reporting. Mail Online and The Daily Telegraph also covered the entire study extensively to promote awareness amongst the general public.

What happened during the research?

Scientists wanted to identify and measure the chemicals released during the burning of incense stick and conduct in-vitro examinations of their effects on bacteria and animal cells. Researchers ignited four incense sticks and one cigarette in a specially devised machine which could accumulate the residues of smoke from both these agents on a series of filters. After collecting the chemicals released from the combustion of incense sticks, scientists performed gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. They also conducted tests for the action of these chemicals on salmonella cells to find out whether they lead to mutations. Scientists even tested the residues present on the filter paper on ovary cells of Chinese hamsters to find out whether they cause any toxic effect.

What was the outcome of the tests?

Researchers found out that burning of incense sticks resulted in the production of ultrafine particles having adverse effects on health. Scientists chemically analysed 64 compounds produced during the combustion of incense sticks, including essential oils and lignin wood. Results pointed out that most of them were ‘irritants’. Some of these compounds were even found to produce toxic effects on living organisms equivalent to cigarette smoke. Out of the four incense stick tested, one of them resulted in a range of mutation in the salmonella cells. The smoke produced from both cigarette and incense sticks was toxic for the hamster ovary cells. However, we must also remember it is too early to draw any conclusion after conducting a study with such a small sample size. More research is required in this field to find a conclusive result. Sarath Babu, President of All India Agarbathi Manufacturers’ Association, refuted the claim of the Chinese Scientists and opined “There is absolutely no scientific basis to give credibility to this report. The lack of replication in the results leads to the understanding that this report is just a hypothesis and is not a valid theory.”

Adverse effect on health from incense smoke

Studies claimed that the burning of incense sticks could lead to numerous health issues, including cancer, cardiac ailments, asthma, respiratory problems, and skin irritation. Some of the chemicals present in incense smoke were mutagenic, cytotoxic, and genotoxic. They also contain pollutants, which can cause inflammation of the lung cells. A study conducted by scientists off the University of North Carolina found that incense smoke contains carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, and formaldehyde, which may result in Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and asthma. Besides, they also irritate eyes, especially in children and old aged people.

Finally, at this stage, it would be right to say that we must exercise caution while burning incense sticks. It is better to choose those products where chemical compositions remain clearly mentioned on the packet. If any product cause irritation, we must discontinue them immediately.