CHAPEL HILL – Before you light up a stick of incense, you may want to read this. A study by UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health finds that burning incense can cause lung inflammation.

Kenneth Sexton, retired research assistant professor of environmental science at UNC and co-author of the study, compared the products of incense burned in the study to those found in cigarette smoke.

“We found carbon monoxide concentrations from burning incense to be many times greater than from cigarette smoke,” Sexton says. “The particle concentrations from incense were similar to cigarette smoke.”

The study, written by Sexton and Karin Yeatts, research assistant professor of epidemiology at UNC, looked specifically at the way incense is burned in the United Arab Emirates, a small country in the Middle East.

To reenact the time of environment that incense would be burned in here, Sexton and Yeatts burned the two most popular types of incense in the UAE, Oudh and Bahkoor, in small, concentrated rooms for three hours at a time.

Cultured lung cells were also placed in the room and the researchers saw that the cells became inflamed in this environment.

Sexton says that while the study shows that incense can cause lung cell inflammation, he cannot yet say that incense would have the same effect on an individual’s actual lungs.

“We did not try to simulate actual lung exposure,” Sexton says. “We didn’t have people in the room and we did not try to estimate how much material would be deposited in a human lung.”

Ninety-four percent of households in the UAE burn incense on a weekly basis. While incense is not as popular in the United States, Yeatts says this study is still important to make those Americans who do use incense aware of the risks.

“If they do burn incense, they are potentially being exposed to some of these air pollutants and some of the air pollutants that we found and measured are criteria EPA pollutants that are regulated by the EPA outdoors,” Yeatts says.

Among the products found in incense smoke in the study were carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and formaldehyde.

To read the study in full, click here.