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Toxins leaking from embalmed bodies in graveyards pose threat to the living

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 11/05/2015

Formaldehyde used in embalming bodies in cemeteries including Milltown in Belfast could be getting into our water supply
Formaldehyde used in embalming bodies in cemeteries including Milltown in Belfast could be getting into our water supply

Silent toxins are seeping out of graveyards around Northern Ireland.

And they have been for decades. The problem is the formaldehyde and other chemicals which are used in embalming the dead.

Environmental Agency guidance suggests that it takes up to 10 years for this dangerous chemical to dissipate, and more of it goes into the ground every day.

Now a Northern Ireland company has come up with a plan to neutralise formaldehyde inside the coffin.

David Spiers of Greenacre Innovations will meet Environment Minister Mark H Durkan today to urge him to support the plan to revolutionise the way in which our dead are buried.

He said: "The problem arises from the relatively recent discovery that formaldehyde is incredibly dangerous."

Until recently there was little understanding that formaldehyde causes cancer. Formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring organic compound.

A gas at room temperature, formaldehyde is colorless and has a characteristic pungent, irritating odor. In view of its widespread use, toxicity and volatility, exposure to formaldehyde is a significant consideration for health and is "known to be a human carcinogen", according to US thw National Toxicology Program.

Up to nine litres of embalming fluid are put into a dead body and 180 grams of that is toxic formaldehyde.

As the body decomposes, it seeps into the ground.

Where a cemetery is on a hill, like Milltown in Belfast, the toxins may be draining down into the Bog Meadows and the River Lagan.

Where cemeteries have been subjected to flooding in recent rain, as at Roselawn, toxins may have been brought to the surface.

James Orr of Friends of the Earth says all cemeteries should be regarded as "contaminated spaces".

Ballymena undertaker William O'Donnell supports the plan to reinvent the coffin as a sterile unit in which toxins can be contained and neutralised.

He says that all professionals handling coffins in council cemeteries are now made aware of the dangers.

He said: "The straps with which we lower the dead into the ground in council graveyards now have to be left behind and buried with the coffin because they are regarded as too dangerous to handle."

Mr O'Donnell added: "This is a bigger problem than asbestos."

Others, like Mr Orr, support a different approach, burying the body without embalming, often in wicker coffins that will decompose quickly.

There has already been substantial research into the dangers of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid and other countries have urged undertakers to stop using it, but the professionals still prefer it, despite the risks.

An expert on water safety with WSP - one of the world's leading professional firms providing services in the built and natural environment - set out the nature of the problem in a recent report.

Stefan Le Roy describes how decomposition of the dead threatens the environment.

"In the process you'll have leached chemicals including ammonia, formaldehyde (from embalming) chloride and metals.

"Approximately half the chemicals will leach out in the first year, and if groundwater is near to the surface, that can cause problems."

Mr Le Roy urges local authorities to "model the risk" where cemeteries are close to the water table, to ensure carcinogenic formaldehyde, in particular, doesn't get into the water.

An Environment Agency report suggest that the formaldehyde in a body would have disappeared in about 10 years.

"For instance, an embalmed body contains 180g of formaldehyde in nine litres of embalming fluid," it says.

It says we can assume "about half of this is degraded rapidly in the decomposition process".

Worse still, older cemeteries around Northern Ireland have graves in which the bodies were embalmed with industrial arsenic before its use was banned.

Belfast Telegraph

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