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Bakhoor as a Harmful Incense for Health and Environment Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 15th, 2020


Bahkoor is a culturally important incense among the Emiratis, especially those who practice the Islamic faith. The literature review shows that when Bahkoor is burnt indoors with poor ventilation, several poisonous substances are emitted. They include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, formaldehyde, acetone, and acrolein, among others. These substances have varying health impact depending on the level of concentration and the time of exposure. They also have a significant effect on the environment.



Burning of incense is a practice that has been in existence for a very long time in many parts of the world. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and many other religious groups have different incense, which they use on different occasions. It is a practice that has remained very popular among the Muslims as it is considered an integral part of the religion. In the United Arab Emirates, Bahkoor is one of the commonly used incense. According to Hsueh and Ko (2012), Bahkoor is considered one of the essential fragrances among the Muslim communities around the world. It is commonly used during celebrations like weddings as a sign of good luck to the newlyweds and their families. It is also used at home when there are visitors as a gesture of hospitality. Traditionally, it was believed that Bahkoor helps in fighting omen, especially in the evening just before meals (Cohen, Sexton, & Yeatts, 2013). Others believed that it has medicinal value, a fact that has made it remain popular for years. Today, many families in the United Arab Emirates still use Bahkoor for various reasons.

Scientific studies have recently found that the use of Bahkoor may have significant health effects, especially in rooms, which are poorly ventilated. According to a study by Hsueh and Ko (2012), burning of Bahkoor in places with poor ventilation may lead to the production of poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur oxide (Sox), nitrogen oxide (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hydrocarbons, and asbestos among others (Landrigan & Etzel, 2013). These are hazardous gases, which may have significant health and environmental consequences. However, it is essential to have a scientific basis before concluding that, indeed, Bahkoor is environmentally harmful. For instance, it is common knowledge that carbon monoxide can be lethal at night if inhaled for an extended period when one is asleep. However, Buettner (2017) notes that reported cases in the country where one died of carbon monoxide intoxication caused by burning Bahkoor at home are infrequent. These conflicting scientific reports make it necessary to have a scientific study to help determine if indeed incense, particularly the use of Bahkoor, is harmful to the environment. In this study, the researcher will conduct a scientific investigation to determine if, indeed, the use of Bahkoor in the United Arab Emirates is harmful to the environment.

Research Aim and Objectives

When conducting research, it is vital to develop clear research aims and objectives that should be achieved by the end of the study (Landrigan & Etzel, 2013). Research aims and objectives form the basis of the research questions. They help in determining what should be achieved when the study is completed. A researcher can evaluate the level of success of the research by looking at how well aims and objectives are met. The following is the primary research aim for this study.

To determine if incense, particularly Bahkoor, is harmful to health and the environment.

Several objectives that will guide the process of data collection will support the above aim. The following are the specific objectives for the study.

  1. To scientifically determine the adverse health effects of Bahkoor on the users in the United Arab Emirates.
  2. To scientifically determine the adverse effects of Bahkoor on the environment in the United Arab Emirates.
  3. To address myths and fallacies related to the use of Bahkoor.
  4. To come up with science-based recommendations on how to deal with the identified adverse effects.

Research Questions

Research questions guide the process of data collection. Buettner (2017) says that research questions help in ensuring that data collected from the field are relevant in addressing specific issues in the study. They help in eliminating cases where irrelevant data is collected. The following are the research questions used based on the objectives mentioned above.

  1. What are the adverse health effects of Bahkoor on users in the United Arab Emirates?
  2. What are the adverse effects of Bahkoor on the environment in the United Arab Emirates?
  3. What are some of the myths and fallacies related to the use of Bahkoor in the United Arab Emirates?
  4. How can the adverse effects of Bahkoor be addressed in this country?

The above research questions will be answered using both primary and secondary data sources.


The research hypothesis is used to express the view of the research about the topic based on preliminary research. The following is the hypothesis set by the researcher based on the preliminary studies.

H1: Incense, especially the use of Bahkoor at home, is harmful to health and the environment.

At this stage, the above statement is just a hypothesis that is yet to be confirmed. The researcher will review existing literature to determine what other scholars have found in their studies concerning this topic. The researcher will also conduct a scientific experiment to determine if, indeed, there are harmful substances emitted when burning Bahkoor. The outcome will help in making a conclusion that will confirm or reject the above hypothesis.

Literature Review

According to Hsueh and Ko (2012), health experts have become interested in scientifically evaluating substances within the environment attributed to emerging chronic diseases such as cancer. Medical experts are trying to find out possible causes of dangerous diseases such as Ebola, coronary diseases, and cancer. It is believed that exposure to some chemicals or substances used regularly at work or home may be related to emerging diseases. That is why scholars have given Bahkoor special focus as a substance that may be harmful to health and the environment.

The Use of Bahkoor in the United Arab Emirates

The majority of the population in the United Arab Emirates professes Islamic faith. Bahkoor is one of the most popular incenses among Muslims all over the world. According to Buettner (2017), Bahkoor is not only important for formal ceremonies such as weddings but also elegant enough to be used daily at home. Its beautiful scent is used at home in wardrobes, in the living rooms, restrooms, and many other places. Buettner (2017) says that it creates a peaceful environment within the room where people feel relaxed. That is why many scientific studies have confirmed that it is very important for medication because of its psychoactive effect. It enables one to focus on the subconscious world, making it possible to overcome stress. When facing a challenging situation, many people prefer burning Bahkoor to help them think of a way out because of the peaceful and reassuring environment it creates. Some people believe that it has supernatural powers when it comes to fighting bad omen (Gibson et al., 2013). In some of the Emirati families, hosts pass Bahkoor among guests in Majlis as a sign of their hospitality to their visitors. It is a form of reassurance to the visitors that they should feel welcome.

According to Sobh, Belk, and Wilson (2013), the use of Bahkoor is deeply rooted in Islamic practice because of the traditions and teachings in the holy book of the Quran. It is recorded that Prophet Muhammad used Bahkoor, especially on Fridays. It became a custom among Muslims worldwide to use it on every Friday and other important occasions. It became significant incense that has a strong religious meaning based on the teaching in the Quran. It is, therefore, very unlikely that the use of Bahkoor can be brought to an end overnight. After understanding how important Bahkoor is to the local population in the United Arab Emirates, it is now necessary to look at the health and environmental concerns, and come up with ways of managing them in a way that would not affect the Islamic practices while at the same time protecting the environment and people for harm.

Concerns over Indoor Air Pollutant

Scientific studies have shown that Bahkoor and other incense have adverse health effects when used indoors, especially where the ventilations are poor. The researcher observes that “incense undergoes a slow continuous burn with incomplete combustion and emits aromatic smoke with many pollutants in the gas and aerosol phase” (Wexler, 2016, p. 41). Unlike self-burning incenses, Bahkoor relies on charcoal that must be used throughout the process. Charcoal is known to emit dangerous gases when used indoors, especially in rooms with poor ventilation. One of the main pollutants associated with charcoal use in rooms poorly supplied with oxygen is carbon monoxide. According to Ebinc, Ebinc, and Ozkurt (2016), carbon monoxide is a lethal air pollutant that kills silently, especially when inhaled continuously for a given period. Particulate matter is another pollutant associated with Bahkoor partly because it relies on the charcoal to burn out. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) is a very dangerous pollutant specifically emitted by burning Bahkoor (Yuan, Qianqian, Li, & Guangchun, 2016). Other dangerous pollutants emitted by burning this incense include formaldehyde (HCHO) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), among other carbonyls. In a study conducted by Ibrahim (2015), some of the common carbonyls associated with Bahkoor include “acrolein, methacrolein, acetaldehyde, pentanal (valeraldehyde), acetone, glyoxal, methylglyoxal, propanal and furfural” (p. 73).

Adverse Health Effects of Incense Burning

When burning Bahkoor, incense emissions and chemical composition of the pollutants are released. They include nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, formaldehyde, acrolein, acetaldehyde, methacrolein, pentanal, acetone, methylglyoxal, and metals. These pollutants have varying health effects. According to Landrigan and Etzel (2013), burning Bahkoor is a properly ventilated environment that may have insignificant health effects. However, in poorly ventilated environments, some of the pollutants mentioned above can be very dangerous. It is important to look at how these pollutants affect human health and the environment in general. Scientific studies have been conducted within this region and at the international level to help identify the health risks and how they can be controlled. According to Wexler (2016), the burning of Bahkoor is associated with several respiratory and cardiovascular diseases based on the composition and level of concentration. It is also known to affect the eye. At this stage, it is very important to look at these gases and their impact on human health and the environment.

Carbon monoxide, one of the common pollutants when burning Bahkoor in a poorly ventilated environment, is a very dangerous gas. According to Ibrahim (2015), when inhaled in considerable quantities, it mixes with hemoglobin once in the bloodstream, resulting in the formation of carboxyhemoglobin. The process is called carbon monoxide poisoning. Continuous poisoning of the blood by this gas makes it impossible for the hemoglobin to carry oxygen to various parts of the body, including the brain. Lack of oxygen in the blood causes the death of tissues and body cells. Tension-type headache, dizziness, confusion and tiredness, nausea, stomach ache, and shortness of breath are some of the immediate carbon monoxide poisoning (Landrigan & Etzel, 2013).

At this stage, cells within the body are struggling to survive as they are denied important oxygen. If the immediate measure is not taken to eliminate the poisoning, the affected person may lose memory and vision, balance, and eventually lose consciousness in what Wexler (2016) refers to as neurological symptoms. The person may develop seizures and even die if the poisoning continues. The main problem associated with this form of poisoning is that the gas is colorless and odorless; hence it is not easy to detect it. One can easily die when asleep in case the exposure to the gas is continuous and significant. Carbon monoxide poisoning can have long-term health complications if one is exposed to it for a long time but is lucky to be rescued before he or she dies. Parkinsonism, angina, and other respiratory problems may arise if the blood vessels get blocked during poisoning. To a woman who is pregnant, low birth weight, perinatal death, and children with behavioral problems are some of the common problems. Carbon dioxide, once released into the atmosphere, reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, one of the worst greenhouse gases known to be the primary cause of global warming and climate change.

Nitrogen oxide is another very poisonous substance that is often emitted when burning Bahkoor in poorly ventilated rooms. It is associated with several respiratory complications depending on the level of its concentration and duration of exposure (Landrigan & Etzel, 2013). Inflammation of the linings of the lung is one of the common health problems caused by this gas. Once the lung’s linings are inflamed, it loses its immunity, hence exposing it to various infections. The lungs become susceptible to problems such as coughing, wheezing, bronchitis, colds, and flue. High concentrations of nitrogen oxide may cause asthma, especially among the elderly and children whose immunity is compromised. Some of these health problems, such as flue and colds, may be short-lived. However, others, such as asthma and bronchitis, may become long-term health problems. This gas is also known to be very dangerous to the environment. Once in the atmosphere, it reacts with moisture and other gases to form smog, which reduces visibility. It also mixes with rain to produce acidic rain corrosive to metallic structures and dangerous to the vegetative cover. The gas is also known to be central in the formation of ground-level ozone and particulate matter.

Sulfur dioxide is also emitted when burning Bahkoor. When this gas is inhaled, Ibrahim (2015) says that it may have serious health problems. It causes serious irritation of the throat, airways, and nose. The irritation causes a feeling of tightness around the chest, coughing, shortness of the breath, and wheezing. One cannot withstand exposure to sulfur oxide for a long time because of an immediate impact unless it is camouflaged within other scents, as is always the case when burning Bahkoor. When one suffers from asthma is exposed to this gas, his or her condition may worsen. The gas is also dangerous to the eye. Wexler (2016) also associated the gas with morphological changes, especially when the exposure is prolonged. When released into the air, it mixes with water particles, which results in dangerous acidic rain. It is one of the greenhouse gases known to be dangerous to the environment. The acidic rain affects plants and metallic structures.

Studies have indicated that Bahkoor emits heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, PAHs, PM, zinc, and asbestos, which have varying environmental effects. According to Wexler (2016), “Burning of incense was discovered to be a significant source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs),” (75). PAHs are dangerous both to human health and to the environment. They are carcinogenic substances that affect both human and animal cells. Studies have indicated that asbestos, one of the substances emitted when burning Bahkoor, is known to cause cancer (Ibrahim, 2015). Lead poisoning is also very dangerous to the brain. The particulate matter (PM) emitted when burning Bahkoor may cause respiratory problems depending on its quantity. PM may also cause irritation in the eye.

Formaldehyde is a poisonous substance when inhaled or exposed to the eye. It causes serious irritation to the eye, and when the exposure is prolonged, it may result in long-term complications in the eye, such as severe burns. It is also known to cause skin irritation because it reacts with skin pigments (Landrigan & Etzel, 2013). Inhalation may cause dizziness and suffocation. The gas also irritates the throat and nose. Prolonged inhalation may cause headaches.

On the other hand, acetone causes cough, confusion, headache, sore throat, drowsiness, or unconsciousness when inhaled. Ibrahim (2015) says that when acetone comes into contact with the skin, it causes dryness. The pollutant causes an eye to redden. It may also blur the vision, cause pain in the eye, or possibly result in corneal damage. When ingested, it may cause nausea and vomiting. Acetaldehyde also has a similar effect as acetone on the respiratory system, skin, and eye. However, when ingested, it may also cause diarrhea (Buettner, 2017). Methylglyoxal, glyoxal, propanal, acrolein, and methacrolein are very dangerous substances emitted when burning Bahkoor. They affect the respiratory system, eyes, and other body organs. They are also harmful to the environment.


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