Friday, October 28, 2016

The Dead and the Environment: Part 2, Arsenic and Cold Place: How the Dead Come Back to Kill Us

Click for photo credit.
As we approach Halloween, I thought it would be spooktacular to introduce a new brief series on On the Brink that focuses on the dead and the environment. The second part of this three-part series is titled, Arsenic and Cold Place:  How the Dead Come Back to Kill Us.

Like many in college, I earned my tuition and rent money by working lots of different types of jobs. The summers of my freshman and sophomore years I left the dorms at UW-Oshkosh and moved in with my sister and her husband who lived near where I grew up. I got a job at a unique midwestern small town institution: a furniture store and funeral home. The buildings were separated, but the tradition of the two businesses came out of the furniture and coffin making business. While I mainly worked delivering furniture, I did make occasional deliveries and pick ups for the funeral home which was located in an old colonial style home. One of the owners lived on the top floor with his wife, and the embalming and visitation rooms were on the first floor. Coffins were stored in a maze-like basement that I always imagined would be a wonderful setting for a horror movie. When new coffins were delivered, we always had to move the entire inventory around to make room. 

The smells of the furniture store and the funeral home were unique. At the furniture store, we often spent hours polishing the fine wooden furniture. The smell of Lemon Pledge was frequently in the air. When we got new deliveries of sofas, the "new car smell" of volatile organic compounds from the synthetic fabrics permeated the store. In contrast, the funeral home smelled of flowers and embalming fluid. Of course, the "new car smell" and embalming fluids are known to cause illnesses in humans.

Formaldehyde is often used to preserve biological specimens but
you wouldn't want to drink it. Click for photo credit.
Embalming fluids have changed over the years, but most embalming fluid today consists of formaldehyde, methanol, and glutaraldehyde. The most problematic component in the mix is formaldehyde which makes up anywhere from 5-50% of embalming liquids. Formaldehyde is extremely toxic to humans. Indeed, it is the toxic nature of embalming fluids which slows decomposition. Microbes and insects cannot do their natural job of breaking down flesh when it is infused with poison. Formaldehyde is considered a carcinogen by many agencies. Some countries have banned its use. In the U.S., we use roughly 5 million gallons of embalming fluid each year. 

Of course when bodies break down, and even embalmed bodies eventually decompose, the formaldehyde can enter the ground near the burial and eventually make its way into groundwater. Scientists have found high levels of formaldehyde in seepage water near cemeteries. This has caused concern in some areas of the world, particularly in Ireland, where gravediggers are worried about environmental exposure from formaldehyde as water enters graves they are digging. Low levels of formaldehyde are showing up in many groundwater systems. We are literally drinking the dead in some areas. The situation is so concerning that the UK published a document called, Assessing the Groundwater Pollution Potential of Cemetery Developments

Click for photo credit.
But formaldehyde is not the only chemical of concern. Prior to the use of formaldehyde, arsenic was the main chemical used as a corpse preservative. The practice of using arsenic in the U.S. started in the Civil War when there was a need to preserve bodies so they could be returned home for burial. The practice soon spread and throughout the late 19th century it was very common to preserve the dead using arsenic. The practice was banned in the early twentieth century out of health concerns for those involved with embalming. Anywhere from 0.5 to several pounds of arsenic were used to embalm a corpse. Of course arsenic is elemental and does not break down in the environment over time like many organic chemicals. High levels of arsenic have been found in wells near some older cemeteries and there is great concern for archaeologists and cemetery workers who may find an arsenic infused grave in their normal activities. There is growing worry over this 19th century arsenic in the environment because it has been shown that even low levels of arsenic can be problematic for human health.

For many reasons, some of us choose to be cremated. But even in the fire we find there are issues. The biggest concern with crematories is mercury pollution. The source of the mercury can be found in the silver fillings that were common in my generation before the development of enamel fillings. When a body is burned, the mercury is released and enters the atmosphere. Scientists have found higher levels of mercury in soils downwind of crematories. There is very little regulation of crematories for mercury emissions since the total amount of mercury released falls below regulatory thresholds. For example, in Wisconsin, the release must be over ten pounds per year. Most crematories release far less than this.
Many cultures find ways to preserve the dead. How does the environmental
impact of preservation technology change over time? Click for photo credit.

All of these environmental concerns have prompted the development of the green funeral industry. You can be buried in organic baskets, be put in a box with a sapling growing from it, be put in a shroud and placed in a mass grave, or be part of experimental body farm. As I mentioned in the previous post, no matter what you do, your death will have an impact on the environment. We, or those who make decisions for us after we die, can opt to lessen that impact.

In the final post of this Halloween series, I will review what the dead tell us about past environments in a post called, The Talking Dead.

To see yesterday's post, The Island of a Million Spirits and the Impact of the Cemeteries Around Us, click here.