Arsenic Contamination in Graveyards: How the Dead Are Hurting the Environment

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Cover Courtesy Scribner
Follow the green burial movement and learn more natural ways to bury the dead in "Grave Matters" by Mark Harris.

Grave Matters (Scribner, 2008) takes us through the green burial movement and how the modern funeral industry is negatively impacting our environment. Author Mark Harris tells the stories of the alternative ways people are burying their loved ones. In this excerpt taken from chapter two, “After the Burial,” learn how arsenic contamination is threatening the natural environment that surrounds cemeteries. 

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We call our cemeteries parks and lawns and fields and greens. Yet the American graveyard hardly qualifies as a natural environment. For all their landscaping aboveground, our cemeteries function less as verdant resting grounds of the dead than as landfills for the materials that infuse and encase them. The typical 10-acre swath of cemetery ground, for example, contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, nine hundred-plus tons of casket steel, and another twenty thousand tons of vault concrete. To that add a volume of embalming fluid sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool and untold gallons of pesticide and weed killer to keep the graveyard preternaturally green.

Like the contents of any landfill, the embalmed body’s toxic cache escapes its host and eventually leaches into the environment, tainting surrounding soil and groundwaters. Cemeteries bear the chemical legacy of their embalmed dead, and well after their graves have been closed. In older cemeteries, arsenic may be the longest-enduring contaminant. A highly toxic and powerful preservative, arsenic was a mainstay of early embalming solutions in the pre- and post-Civil War years. Druggists, surgeons and emerging chemical companies of the period mixed anywhere from a few ounces to many pounds of arsenic into the new preservative, but, as they’d soon discover, at great risk to the embalmers’ health. By 1910, so many embalmers had themselves perished from their efforts to preserve the dead with arsenic that the federal government stepped in and banned its use in embalming solutions.

Cemeteries that date back to the turn of the twentieth century may yet show traces of that long-banned preservative. Nearly a quarter of the water samples that John Konefes of the University of Northern Iowa drew from hand-pump wells on the grounds of some dozen Civil War-era cemeteries scattered around the state tested positive for arsenic, an element not common to Iowa groundwaters. Two samples contained arsenic at levels above the then-proposed drinking water standards. Konefes says his limited, 1990 research only suggests the potential for arsenic contamination of older cemeteries, but believes it’s strong enough to warrant further study. The toxic element “will not bio-remediate, it will not break down,” he says. “Exposed to water seeping through the grave, some of the arsenic in an embalmed body will leach out and it has to go somewhere.” Konefes’s work suggests that nearby groundwater, which may supply individual families or communities with their drinking water, is a logical place for arsenic to run.

No one has launched the large-scale study Konefes has proposed. In the mid-1990s, a geology professor and some of his students at New York’s Hamilton College did, however, conduct small-scale research into graveyard contamination. Testing groundwater down-gradient of a tiny, 1820s cemetery on college property, the group found trace amounts of arsenic and other lesser-used ingredients of early embalming compounds, such as zinc, lead and mercury. A sampling of groundwater above the cemetery showed no arsenic contamination. Those upper groundwaters flow beneath the cemetery in the direction of the lower groundwaters, so the appearance of arsenic in the latter suggests the toxic element came from the cemetery and its arsenic-embalmed bodies.

More recently two geologists at the University of Toledo detected arsenic not in groundwaters but in cemetery soil. Testing the soil of graves in a large, mid-1800s cemetery in northeast Ohio, Alison Spongberg and Paul Becks recorded “dramatic increases” in readings for arsenic in a number of samples taken from depths at which coffins lay and had eventually decayed. Lacking burial records, the researchers could not definitively trace the arsenic’s source to embalmed bodies interred there. But given that the samples were taken near graves dating back to the period of arsenic embalming, they “may indicate contamination from previous embalming practices and/or wood preservatives,” according to the study’s authors.

Spongberg and Beck also found their cemetery soil contaminated with a number of elements that are major components of another common burial product: the coffin. In soil samples taken at coffin depth, they detected elevated concentrations of copper, lead, zinc and iron, the very metals used in casket construction. Noting the high levels of both arsenic and coffin metals in their cemetery soils, the authors assert that their study warrants “concern for the quality of soil, groundwater, and nearby surficial water systems” in and around cemeteries. Archeologists take the potential of arsenic contamination seriously, for their own health’s sake. For fellow archeologists conducting digs within historic cemeteries, one contractor advises testing soils before starting in and, in those sites that boast high arsenic readings, consulting with HAZMAT experts to map out a strategy that ensures the safety of workers, from requiring the use of protective eyewear way to keeping down arsenic-laced dust.

Arsenic is less likely to taint the environs of the newer grave. In the decade before arsenic was banned from those first prep rooms, formaldehyde emerged as the embalmer’s preservative of choice and today is the prime ingredient of practically all embalming solutions on the market. Yet, like its more poisonous forbear, formaldehyde, too, leaves its mark on the environment.

Though safer for embalmers, formaldehyde is nonetheless a human carcinogen, and because of its potentially toxic effect when released into environment, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates it as a hazardous waste. The funeral industry, however, 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.

Little research has focused on the potential environmental consequences of depositing such large volumes of a hazardous substance into cemetery grounds. Two, non-peer reviewed Canadian studies that examined the issue found traces of formaldehyde in groundwaters either beneath or down-gradient of seven cemeteries around Ontario. The amount of formaldehyde that turned up in the waters was small, both authors report, indicating as the 1992 study issued by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment states, “that cemeteries are not a significant contributing source of formaldehyde to groundwater” in that country. No one is systematically testing cemetery groundwaters for formaldehyde pollution in the United States, and the U.S. government has no established safety standards for the amount of formaldehyde in drinking water.

One side-effect of the funeral industry’s use of formaldehyde that has received more attention concerns the health of embalmers who handle it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which classifies formaldehyde as a potential occupational carcinogen, strictly regulates its use among the funeral industry based on evidence that regular exposure to the toxic gas may harm its workers. Numerous studies have found that embalmers and funeral directors exhibit a higher incidence of leukemia and cancers of the brain and colon, as well as a severe and persistent skin condition known as “embalmer’s eczema,” all presumably caused by formaldehyde. Other agents in embalming compounds pose yet additional health risks. One study traced a noted loss of sex drive and breast enlargement among embalmers to estrogens in the massage creams they applied to the dead.

Read more about green burial in Ask a Mortician. For more information about this book visit Grave Matters.

Reprinted with permission from Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris and published by Scribner, 2008. 

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