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Cemeteries: Environmental Pollution and Groundwater Contamination

  • Synopsis: Published: 2015-10-08 (Rev. 2017-05-04) - Information regarding toxic chemicals used in the burial process that can cause environmental contamination and groundwater pollution. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Ian Langtree at Disabled World.

Cemetery and Groundwater Pollution

Cemetery - A cemetery or graveyard is defined as a place where the remains of deceased people are buried or otherwise interred. The word cemetery implies that the land is specifically designated as a burial ground. The older term graveyard is often used interchangeably with cemetery, but primarily referred to a burial ground within a churchyard.

Groundwater Pollution - Also called groundwater contamination - occurs when pollutants are released to the ground and make their way down into groundwater. It can also occur naturally due to the presence of a minor and unwanted constituent, contaminant or impurity in the groundwater, in which case it is more likely referred to as contamination rather than pollution. Groundwater contamination occurs when products such as gasoline, oil, road salts and chemicals get into the groundwater and cause it to become unsafe and unfit for human use.

Main Document

"The funeral industry legally buries over three gallons of formaldehyde-based formalin embalming solution every time it inters an embalmed body."

Agriculture, industry and landfills are commonly believed to be the major anthropogenic sources of environmental contamination, however, little attention has been given to cemeteries as possible sources of pollution and groundwater contamination.

There are about 109,000 cemeteries in the United States that are recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey. Regardless of how many people are interred at each of these cemeteries - anywhere from one at the smallest private cemeteries to more than 260,000 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Every year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:

  • 14,000 tons of steel vaults.
  • 90,272 tons of steel caskets.
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze caskets.
  • 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete vaults.
  • 30 million board feet (70,000 m3) of hardwood caskets.
  • 827,060 US gallons (3,130 m3) of embalming fluid, which usually includes formaldehyde.

Coffins

Toxic chemicals from coffins that may be released into groundwater include varnishes, sealers and preservatives and metal handles and ornaments used on wooden coffins. The burial of coffins can pose an environmental and health hazard since the metals that are used in coffin-making can corrode or degrade into harmful toxins. These can leach into the surrounding soils and groundwater. Casket manufacturers are listed on the EPA's top 50 hazardous waste generators list due to chemicals such as methyl and xylene used in the protective finish sprayed on the caskets exterior (a casket that will be buried or burned).

Black and white picture of headstones in a cemetery
Black and white picture of headstones in a cemetery
Wood preservatives and paints used in coffin construction contain minerals include copper naphthalene and ammoniac or chromated copper arsenate (CCA), as well as ammonium copper quaternary (ACQ) and copper boron azole (CBA). Prior to the 1940s, lead compounds were commonly used as coloring agents in paints. These toxic metals such as manganese, nickel, copper and vanadium were also identified in old paint samples. Currently, many paints still contain lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium. Arsenic is used as a pigment, a wood preservative and as an anti-fouling ingredient while barium is used as a pigment and a corrosion inhibitor.

Metals are also used for the handles and other ornaments that are attached to the outside of a coffin. The fasteners and coffin ornaments also contain minerals such as zinc and zinc or copper-alloys, silver or bronze. Often these items are spray painted, vacmetalized, electroplated or a combination of these processes to enhance their aesthetic value.

Formaldehyde

The primary purpose of embalming is to delay decomposition long enough to allow the body to be viewed. Today, the main ingredient in embalming fluid is formaldehyde. The World Health Organization, and The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, classify formaldehyde as a hazardous waste being a human carcinogen.

The funeral industry legally buries over three gallons of formaldehyde-based formalin embalming solution every time it inters an embalmed body. As the vast majority of casketed burials involve embalmed bodies, funeral directors oversee the burial of some three to five million gallons of formaldehyde into cemetery grounds every year - (www.utne.com/environment/arsenic-contamination-ze0z1306zpit.aspx?PageId=3)

When formaldehyde is used for embalming, it breaks down, and the chemicals released into the ground after burial and ensuing decomposition are inert. The problems with the use of formaldehyde and its constituent components in natural burial are the exposure of mortuary workers to it and the destruction of the decomposer microbes necessary for breakdown of the body in the soil. However, formaldehyde is only moderately persistent, its half-life is just two to 20 days in water, unlike arsenic, which, as a basic element, pretty much lasts forever.

Mercury

Another element of concern is mercury from dental fillings (which, in some cases, can be composed of as much as 50 percent mercury), pacemakers, esophageal tubes, and a host of other medical products, which can leach into groundwater once the body has decayed.

Other Chemicals

Numerous toxic pesticides, fertilizers, and weed killers used to keep graveyards green and neat.

Green Burials

Billy Campbell, a rural doctor and a pioneer of the green burial movement in the USA, is reported to have opened the first modern green cemetery in North America at the Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina in 1998. A green burial is a cremation alternative, and a viable alternative to "traditional" burial practices in the United States. A green burial, or natural burial, ensures the burial site remains as natural as possible in all respects. Interment of bodies is done in a bio-degradable casket, shroud, or blanket. No embalming fluid, no concrete vaults. Natural burials were long the default, and many Americans continue to rely on natural burial practices. Conservation burial uses an old practice to promote rural conservation and urban open space. More than returning nutrients to the land, the great potential for conservation burial is to conserve land, create open space, and restore natural habitats.

Embalming, expensive sealed caskets and burial vaults are not required by law. Though traditional memorial parks may require them, a green cemetery or memorial nature preserve does not. The simplicity of a green burial is in tune with nature and need not be expensive.

Resources and Citations

  • Arsenic and Old Graves
    https://eponline.com/articles/2006/09/01/arsenic-and-old-graves.aspx
  • Til Death Do We Pollute, and Beyond: The Potential Pollution of Cemeteries and Crematoriums
    https://archive.org/stream/tilDeathDoWePolluteAndBeyondThePotentialPollutionOfCemeteriesAnd/TillDeathDoWePollute_djvu.txt
  • Mineral Contamination from Cemetery Soils
    www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3315260/
  • Cemeteries, Burials & The Water Environment
    www.doeni.gov.uk/niea/cemeteryguidance.pdf
  • Landscapes of the Dead: An Argument for Conservation Burial
    ced.berkeley.edu/bpj/2012/09/landscapes-of-the-dead-an-argument-for-conservation-burial/
  • Concerns: Embalming and Cemetery Pollution
    villagememorial.blogspot.ca/2015/05/pollution-from-embalming-and-cemeteries.html
  • Groundwater near cemeteries
    www.wspgroup.com/en/WSP-UK/Who-we-are/Newsroom/features/Groundwater-near-cemeteries/
  • Arsenic Contamination in Graveyards: How the Dead Are Hurting the Environment
    www.utne.com/environment/arsenic-contamination-ze0z1306zpit.aspx
  • Issues to Consider in Preparing for Disposition of Decedents
    www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/programs/environmental-health/comm-sanitation/burial-and-cremation.html
  • Natural burial
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_burial


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  1. Are Chemicals a Contributing Factor to Autism - Disabled World - (2014-09-12)
  2. America's Love of Chemicals - Disabled World - (2013-09-11)
  3. List of Toxic Chemicals Suspected to Cause Autism and Learning Disabilities - The Mount Sinai Hospital / Mount Sinai School of Medicine - (2012-04-25)

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