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Hey, Matt:

I burn quite a bit of incense in my apartment, and I'm wondering just what sort of toxic chemicals I am inhaling. Has incense ever been linked to lung cancer or other serious illness? And what exactly is "Nag Champa," and why am I so addicted to it?

-- Matt Cardwell, Hillcrest

In the grand toxic scheme of things, incense hardly registers on the meter. A stick of Nag Champa vs. the tailpipe of an old diesel truck climbing a hill? Hah. Of course, if the air is so thick in your house you need fog lights to find the bathroom, well, common sense has to tell you your lungs, sinuses, et al., are taking a beating. We'll assume you're maybe a two-, three-stick-a-day guy living in something bigger than a refrigerator carton. You're not helping your lungs much, but there are more cancer risks in the larger environment. Do Buddhist monks, Deadheads have lots of lung cancer? Medical science is strangely silent.

Incense -- at least the good stuff -- is just ground up spices or wood bark or herbs, flowers, whatever the fragrance is, stuck together with tree sap. So snorting incense smoke is like sticking your head in the fireplace or loitering around a brush fire. If you burn that Midnight Musk or Strawberry Delight stuff, well, there are artificial fragrance chemicals in most of them, which is why they smell like a cheap hooker in flames.

If the smoke doesn't irritate your nose or eyes, well, perhaps the spiritual value will offset any small health risk. And by the way, when people say they're "allergic" to smoke -- incense, tobacco, whatever -- well, they're not. At least not by the strict medical definition of an allergy. There is no protein component in smoke, and protein is necessary to cause an allergic reaction. Smoke is just an irritant, not an allergen.

As for your favorite irritant, Nag Champa, the name is Hindi, though I'm told by my experts that it has a Sanskrit origin. "Champa" is the local name for a flower that grows about ten feet tall in the tropics, Alpinia nutans, shell ginger. "Nag" is more of a problem. It literally means "cobra," but has other layers of meaning in different contexts. Here it probably means "breath" or "spirit." So the fragrance of the ginger flower is the principal scent in Nag Champa, though I'm told by those who've smelled the plant, the fragrance is very delicate, and of course when it burns in incense, it smells like smoldering compost.

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