Burning joss paper leading to lung cancer

From ‘Restrict incense burning to places of worship’, 15 June 2015, ST Forum

(Madam Wah Yan Chan): I AGREE with Mr Mckeena Neo (“Common corridors not the place for burning incense paper”; June 2). While our forefathers may have burnt joss paper and incense sticks as a sign of devotion, they probably did so without knowing that such burning produces a cocktail of harmful carcinogens that may cause conditions such as asthma and, in the long term, can lead to life-threatening diseases such as lung cancer.

Causing inconvenience and harm to others should never be justified on the bases of religion and tradition. Surely Singapore should have a law prohibiting the burning of incense and joss paper in common areas and restricting the practice to designated places of worship.

There are regulations in the Environmental Public Health Act that stipulate how many joss sticks and candles with specific dimensions may be burnt in premises such as an ‘enclosed space’ or a temple. When burning cancerous joss paper, however, the public is merely advised to use burning pits and containers provided by town councils and clean up their mess after satisfying the gods, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it just outside your HDB flat. The writer above is clearly convinced that burning joss paper increases one’s risk of cancer and should be banned from public areas. The problem is she’s somehow OK with people getting cancer in ‘designated places of worship’.

Whether or not joss paper has the same risk as cigarette smoke is up for debate, since I believe no one has done extensive epidemiological studies on joss paper as we have for tobacco. What is certain, however, is joss paper is a potential fire hazard, especially if people are appeasing their ancestors near a PETROL STATION. Even burning them in bins as recommended by the authorities may lead to explosions in your FACE if there’s a stray aerosol can lying within. In 1976, a blaze ripped through a Jalan Ubi village, rendering 16 locals homeless. It started when burning joss paper flew into a mattress factory. If only the Fire department had SPRUNG into action faster then.

You may think we’re relatively safe because we don’t live in attap houses anymore, but God help you if a stray hot ash lands on your curtain.  You could say a lit cigarette may cause hell on Earth as well, but the trajectory of burning ash in the wind is more unpredictable, and it’s harder to catch the culprit because it could have blown in from anywhere. It could be a little girl behind it following her parents’ instructions to send money to Grandma’s account in the Netherworld. Do we, then, need to wait for someone to perish from a freak joss paper fire, not to mention asthma or lung cancer, before we do something?

Curbing a religious practice may have, well, inflammatory repercussions, and may explain why the authorities are slow to crack down on joss paper burning, even doing little to stop worshippers from aggravating the haze and pissing off asthmatics some years back. Interestingly, one of the stories behind how joss paper was invented involves a con-job by a paper inventor Cai Lun, who tried to boost paper sales by faking his own death and getting his wife to bribe the King of Hell to return his soul through joss offerings. Today, it has morphed into a custom of filial piety and endearing superstition, though one incompatible with our bid for a ‘clean and green’ future. Then again, we’re still seeing ever more cars on the road, trees being cut down to be replaced by condos and people continuing to smoke like chimneys because the government has banned all ‘smokeless’ tobacco products. At least the burning of joss paper, for all its environmental damage, is a small price to pay if it stops ghosts, demons and the evil dead from popping out of hell portals in what’s left of Bukit Brown and haunting the shit out of us all.

I forsee the practice dying out by the next generation anyway, provided we all don’t die of joss-induced cancer, asthma or in a fiery inferno anytime soon.


5 Responses

  1. Lol !!

    Well written. From my experience , I wrote to the Enviroment minister himself to tell him how ridiculous it was for Singapore to have Indonesia stop the burning of forests ( i.e.. the haze) , when we ourselves do not help in improving the air quality here in Singapore ( i.e….burning of joss paper). His reply was that the burning of forests in Indonesia was “exponentially different” from the burning of offerings here in Singapore. Two wrongs don’t make a right ? Right ?

    • We have a hypocritical government and becoming more useless by the day as we speak. Now that LKY is gone, the world does not take Singapore seriously anymore and who can blame them, when we have such a weak and non-working PM.
      I am sick and tired of seeing such bad behaving among residents who choose to do their burning of joss sticks and paper, offering food to their idols during the 7th month or whenever and they leave such a mess behind which cause inconvenience and harm to others. This is outright littering and pollution, and sometimes vandalism all for the sake of their convenience.
      It is about time thinking citizens rise up and say we will be show tolerance.. ZERO tolerance to such inconsiderate activities that may be convenient to the mindless fools but what about the rest of us?
      The town councils are to be blamed somewhat for not designating a proper area for such damaging activities and turning a blind eye and playing dumb. Well maybe they are that dumb.

    • this is what I have received the reply, after I sent several emails to MP and Town Council. They are both powerless and useless to solve this burning issue problem, till something really FATAL happens:

      Dear Mr Tan

      Thank you for your e-mail below. The issue you have raised has been subject matter of discussion and correspondence over a period of time. It may be useful to summarise the main points we conveyed to you.

      First, the Govt enacted the Community Dispute Resolution Act in 2015 to provide residents with a cost effective avenue to get redress against actions of neighbours who have behaved unreasonably and are inconsiderate through actions such as causing smoke to drift into the resident’s homes.

      The Act sets up a Tribunal which is effectively a Court. The function of the Court is to look at the complaint, study the evidence presented and if the case is confirmed, assess whether the acts complained against are serious enough for the Tribunal to issue order against the neighbour. Failure to comply with a Tribunal’s order is an offence for which the person may be arrested. No lawyers are involved and the procedure is user-friendly. I gave further details of how you can invoke this procedure in a separate email to you. I do appreciate though that you do not wish to take up this route. That is a decision you are entitled to make and we respect that.

      Second, in multi-religious Singapore, many fellow S’poreans burn incense paper as part of observing their religious obligations. The overwhelming majority of them do this without causing inconvenience to their neighbours. This is not a new phenomenon. Such practices existed for decades. I am afraid Town Council is not in a position to intercede and stop our fellow residents from burning incense paper altogether.

      This is not to say there is no control against inconsiderate acts of burning incense paper. Our residents who suffer from unreasonable acts of their neighbours continue to have power and control via the abovementioned Act. However, it is the Tribunal that will decide in each instance whether the acts of incense burning is done in a reasonable manner or not. The involvement of the Tribunal is important. It is impartial. It will seek to strike a proper balance of competing rights of the people involved; the right of a person to observe his religious rites and a right of another person to enjoy a smoke-free environment.

      Third, the Town Council has continued with its education programme on encouraging residents, including your neighbours, to be responsible and considerate when burning incense paper. House visits have been made. Banners have been put up. Flyers have been distributed. Bins have been provided. It will continue to do so.

      Should you wish to discuss further, please do not hesitate to meet me at my weekly MPS at Blk 148 Bt Batok St 11 from 8 pm onwards every Friday.

      Thank you.


  2. “The writer above is clearly convinced that burning joss paper increases one’s risk of cancer and should be banned from public areas. The problem is she’s somehow OK with people getting cancer in ‘designated places of worship’.”

    That’s a strawman argument there.

    Besides, you could choose not to approach such designated areas for joss paper burning. But with the current practice of allowing burning anywhere, the vast majority do not have the luxury of moving away because *gasp* they live there.

    The buddhist and taoist population is a minority and is steadily shrinking, and nobody needs to put up with these medieval and archaic practices of “ancestor worship”. If you want to step into designated burning areas and risk disease, that’s your problem. Balance your religious “beliefs” with your desire not to get cancer instead of asking other people to give a damn, because it’s not their problem that you want to burn carcinogenic paper products.

  3. Well said in this article. At least one citizen has voiced out the truth on this greater ‘hazard’ that we Singaporeans are all facing and suffering in silence for the last 50 years since independence. I hope a new sensible government can ban and wipe out this act of arsonist from our society and learn to be more responsible towards all citizens and protect our hazardous tiny little environment we all share in this little red dot.
    Just to share a little about me as I now depend on steroid eye drops daily because of the allergy caused by my inconsiderate neighbours on a daily fuming environment. There are also others heard coughing away with respiratory and lung diseases also due to these acts of pollution not being condoned by the authorities so far.

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