It is a custom in Taiwan to make offerings and burn paper ghost money for the Chungyuan Festival (中元節, also known as the Ghost Festival) that falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, which is today, but experts warn the resulting air pollution poses a health hazard.
According to a recent study by Lung Shih-chun (龍世俊), a researcher at Academia Sinica’s Research Center for Environmental Changes, burning paper money at temples increases the amount of harmful particles in the air that can be carcinogenic when inhaled.
In scientific circles, the measuring standard for airborne particles is PM2.5 (particulate matter at 2.5 micrometers or less).
Lung said her team has measured PM2.5 levels of 43 micrograms per cubic meter in communities with a temple nearby, and she said this is nearly double the minimum recommended value of 25 micrograms per cubic meter over 24 hours, as set by the WHO.
“The burning of ghost money at local temples is a major source of PM2.5 air pollution in many local communities. Long-term exposure and inhaling of these pollutants can lead to respiratory disease and other health problems,” Lung said.
She and her team have measured high values of PM2.5 at 153 micrograms per cubic meter, and PM10 values of 230 micrograms per cubic meter at large temples during religious ceremony days, which mostly occur on the first and 15th days of the lunar calendar month.
“These values are at five to 16 times the normal value of a regular household’s environment. Therefore we urge people to reduce their time spent at temples or to go to a temple with good air circulation,” Lung said.
Lung’s research indicated that where a community has a temple, nearby households have an increased PM2.5 value at an average of 15.1 micrograms per cubic meter, due to the burning of incense and ghost money.
Lung said temples, restaurants, and construction sites — a source of windblown dust — were three major sources of air pollution in residential communities in the nation.
She said that inhaling PM2.5 pollutants at a close distance is the most direct and most dangerous form of exposure.
She added that her research had been published in the scientific journal Atmospheric Environment this year.
In carrying out the research, the team chose 12 residential communities in Taipei City and New Taipei City, with a total of 123 monitoring sites, including temples, restaurants, construction sites, small factories, shops, public parks and busy traffic spots.
Overall, it was found that temples with burning incense sticks and ghost money caused the highest level of air pollution, with an average PM2.5 value of 45 micrograms per cubic meter, followed by restaurants at 37, and 25 for construction sites.
Lung advised those burning ghost money or participating in traditional pudu (普渡) ceremonies to keep a distance from the incense pot.
“The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] can help to reduce air pollution by offering incentives for temples to cut down on burning ghost money or use environmentally friendly burners,” she said. “The EPA can also establish certification standards for household kitchen ventilators. This can be effective to control air pollution in residential areas.”
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