Going to church may be good for the soul, but some Dutch researchers say it may not be so healthy for the lungs.
The candles and incense regularly burned during religious services emit high levels of particulate matter, tiny airborne flecks considered to be one of the most harmful forms of air pollution, according to a new study by scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Researchers measured air quality at a small chapel and a large basilica in Maastricht and found that the air in both places contained particulate matter at levels up to 20 times higher than what is considered safe to breathe under European air pollution standards. The levels were similar to those found in the air beside roads driven by 45,000 cars a day, according to findings published in the December issue of the European Respiratory Journal.
The researchers said that the pollutants should not affect the well-being of most churchgoers, but that priests and especially devout congregants who spend long periods inside poorly ventilated chapels could be endangering their health.
“It cannot be excluded that regular exposure to candle- or incense-derived particulate matter results in increased risk of lung cancer or other pulmonary diseases,” wrote Theo de Kok, leader of the Maastricht team.
The paper, titled “Radicals in the Church,” also noted that the air monitoring detected high levels of free radicals, or molecules that can aggravate asthma or bronchitis conditions.
The researchers studied churches because of growing interest in the health risks posed by indoor air pollution.
Many scientists have begun more detailed inquiries into the health dangers found in the air indoors, where people spend most of their time.
But scientific knowledge on indoor air pollution still lags behind research on outdoor air pollution from sources such as factory smokestacks and motor vehicles.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released research in 2001 concluding that burning candles and incense can be a source of particulate matter, and that burning candles with lead-core wicks can raise indoor lead levels above what the EPA recommends as safe.
In California, no single agency has the power to regulate indoor air pollution. Those duties are split among several departments, and environmentalists maintain that none conducts enough enforcement or education campaigns to adequately protect the public.
“There is bad indoor air in a lot of places, and if regulators bothered to measure more seriously in private and public places, I suspect they would find a lot of risks,” said Joe Lyou of the California Environmental Rights Alliance. “It’s a big, gaping hole in the regulatory scheme.”
Lee H. Wallach of the Los Angeles Interfaith Environmental Council, a group that promotes environmental awareness among religious organizations, was surprised to learn about the Dutch candle study.
His group is working with 16 mosques, synagogues and churches on a “green sanctuary” program to turn them into more environmentally friendly places by converting to alternative energy sources, such as solar power, and barring carpets and cleaning materials known to give off toxic fumes.
Wallach said many houses of worship want to lead by example on environmental issues and would take the indoor air pollution findings seriously.
“These are important issues for any indoor living or working environment,” he said. “We should educate the individuals in our clergy who work in these institutions, but also the hundreds of thousands of faithful who look to us for guidance about how they can make a difference.”