Take the Gold: Ditch the Frankincense and Myrrh

Dec 23, 2010

I’ve been reading through a Christmas advent book with my 3-year-old son.   From last night’s reading…

“On coming to the house, [the Magi] saw the child [Jesus] with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”1

What were the magi thinking?  Didn’t they know the IAQ implications of using frankincense and myrrh-based incense?2

2,000 years later, we have a better idea about the problems caused by incense.  There was a recent article published in the Indoor Air Journal titled, “Characterization of particles emitted by incense burning in an experimental house.3 The authors were interested in studying particle dispersion in homes, and incense was an ideal particle emitter of moderate intensity.  They burned incense for 15 minutes in the living room and monitored particles throughout an expirimental house.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Using an optical particle counter, the particle concentration measured in the living room spiked up to 3,200 per cm3 from a background level of 24 per cm3
  • Using a photometer for mass calculations, the concentration measured in the living room spiked up to 197 µg/m3 from a background level of  8 µg/m3
  • Elevated concentrations of particles were found throughout the house, even in distant rooms
  • The count median mobility diameter (CMD) of incense particles is around 100 nanometers
  • PAH’s were a constituent in the smoke, albiet a small one

So burning incense anywhere in your house is a bad thing.  Good thing there was plenty of natural ventilation in the mager scene!4

Have a Merry Christmas from the Indoor Air Nerd!

  1. Matthew 2:11, NIV
  2. Yes, frankincense and myrrh had other uses besides incense
  3. Ji X, Le Bihan O, Ramalho O, Mandin C, D’Anna B, Martinon L, Nicolas M, Bard D, Pairon JC. Characterization of particles emitted by incense burning in an experimental house, Indoor Air. 2010 Apr;20(2):147-58.
  4. The magi most likely came long after the manger scene.