Beware of burning incense at home, UAE doctors warn

The results of the study show an inflammatory response that is like the response of lung cells exposed to cigarette smoke.
ABU DHABI // Burning incense sticks at home could be as harmful to the lungs as cigarette smoke, a study has found.

While investigating indoor air pollution, researchers measured the gases emitted by oud and bakhoor, two of the most popular types of incense, in a space that provided a concentration of smoke similar to that of a typical living room.

They exposed human lung cells to the smoke, allowing them to incubate over a 24-hour window.

The results showed an inflammatory response that was similar to the response of lung cells exposed to cigarette smoke, said the author of the study, Rebecca Cohen, a student of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina.

"Incense burning inside the home, a common practice in Arabian Gulf countries, has been recognised as a potentially modifiable source of indoor air pollution," she said.

"Our hazard evaluation suggests that incense burning contributes to indoor air pollution and could be harmful to human health."

The test - carried out over three hours, the typical time incense takes to burn - analysed particulate concentrations and levels of gases, such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and formaldehyde.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than a million people die each year from chronic obstructive respiratory disease (COPD).

WHO predicts it will become the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2030.

One of the primary causes of COPD, WHO said, was related to indoor air pollutants from biomass fuels used for cooking and heating. Burning incense releases similar pollutants, including carbon monoxide.

It is used in about 94 per cent of households in the UAE every week, the study said, to add a perfumed scent to indoor air and clothing, or remove cooking smells.

"It [burning incense] can be a problem," said Dr Bodi Saicharan, specialist in respiratory medicine at Abu Dhabi's Burjeel Hospital. "It can cause a lot of irritation to the lungs and to the nose."

It could also worsen COPDs such as bronchitis and emphysema, and trigger asthma attacks, said Dr Saicharan, who has worked in Abu Dhabi for three years.

There was a lack of information from studies in the UAE and Middle East generally, he added, but a study on asthmatic children in Oman found that those exposed to incense smoke were more likely to suffer an asthma attack.

A 2011 study looking at smoking-related lung diseases in Abu Dhabi found that smokers who had also been exposed to incense smoke at home had more advanced deterioration of their lungs than smokers who were not exposed to the incense, Dr Saicharan said.

"We know as doctors that somebody who is asthmatic who is exposed for a long time to bakhoor is at high risk of developing further symptoms," he said.

High-risk patients tend to be elderly woman who spend a lot of their time at home.

The Hazard Assessment of United Arab Emirates Incense Smoke study, which was published in the Science of the Total Environment journal, suggested opening doors or windows to improve ventilation when using incense.

A previous study by Karin Yeatts, a research assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina and co-author of the latest study, linked incense smoke with numerous health issues, including respiratory symptoms, headaches, exacerbation of cardiovascular disease and changes in lung-cell structure.

Her study of indoor air pollution in the UAE, published last year, found people who burnt incense each day were two to four times more likely to be susceptible to headaches, forgetfulness and concentration problems, among other health conditions.

The university plans to conduct more in-depth studies to determine what other compounds in incense can cause inflammatory lung-cell reactions.

Published: August 11, 2013 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one