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Hungry Ghost Festival Shock: Burning Joss Sticks Linked to Cancer

joss stick seven month hungry ghost

With the seventh month of the lunar calendar (more popularly known as the hungry ghost festival) upon us, many acts of worship will be taking place. But did you know, that the act of burning joss sticks could cause cancer? 

The burning of joss sticks, an integral part of many religious practices in Asia, could be as deadly as traffic fumes and cigarettes.

The Study by Dr Manoon

Dr Manoon Leechawengwong of Thailand has concluded a two-year study examining temple workers responsible for handling smouldering joss sticks. These workers were found to be at risk of various cancers, including leukaemia, lung, blood, and bladder.

“One joss stick creates the same amount of cancer-causing chemicals as one cigarette,” warns Dr Manoon. The levels of toxins were surprisingly high.

Joss Sticks in Worship

Joss sticks, a type of incense, are widely used in Asian countries, especially in Buddhist worship. They are believed to aid spiritual communication and serve as an offering. However, Dr Manoon’s study reveals a darker side to this ritual.

The Findings

The study included 40 workers from three temples deliberately selected away from Bangkok’s traffic pollution. The findings were compared with 25 people living in a joss-stick-free environment. Alarmingly, the temple workers were exposed to dangerously high levels of carcinogens:

  • Benzene: Four times higher than normal.
  • Butadiene: 260 times higher.
  • Benzo[a]pyrene: 63 times greater.

These chemicals have been linked to various cancers, and DNA damage was also found in the temple workers.

Tiktok Warning

A TikTok video by GP Samuel (@skingapore) also warned against the daily use of incense. A Singaporean study of 60,000 middle-aged to elderly Chinese individuals found that long-term daily use increased the risk of heart disease by 12% and doubled the risk of certain cancers.

@skingapore Replying to @˚₊‧꒰ა 🤍 ໒꒱ ‧₊˚ Dont be Incensed! While better studies are always needed, and the risks are not as pronounced as cigarette smoke, there is growing evidence that incense smoke may increase the risk of multiple health conditions. #incense #incensesticks #josssticks #skingapore #gpsamuel #drsam #doctorsoftiktok #drsamuel #singaporegp #singaporedoctor #tiktokdoctor #drsamuelgp #tiktoksg #learnontiktok #cancer #cigarette #smoke #heartdisease #cardiovascular #temple #taoist #incenseburner #asthma #cancerawareness ♬ Spooky, quiet, scary atmosphere piano songs – Skittlegirl Sound


Dr Manoon urges worshippers to reduce risks by extinguishing the scented joss stick immediately after use. Manufacturers could create sticks that burn for a shorter period. “By putting them out after a minute or so, the air pollution would be cut by 30 to 40 times,” he advises.

GP Samuel’s TikTok video also recommends:

  • Ensuring rooms are well-insulated.
  • Using new sticks that create four times less smoke.
  • Consulting religious leaders about the right amount of use.


With the hungry ghost festival currently ongoing, this research serves as a cautionary reminder. While joss sticks remain an essential part of religious practices, understanding and minimising the risks can ensure that devotees stay healthy while engaging in these spiritually significant rituals.

It’s crucial not to disregard the traditions, but rather to adapt them in light of these findings. The spiritual connection and the fragrance of incense can still be enjoyed, but with awareness and precaution, the potential risks can be mitigated.

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