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Funeral directors 'face MND risk'

Published 14/07/2015

Embalming could present a health risk to funeral directors, research suggests
Embalming could present a health risk to funeral directors, research suggests

Funeral directors who embalm bodies may be at heightened risk of m otor neurone disease from using formaldehyde, scientists have warned.

Research carried out in the United States found m en in jobs with high probability of exposure versus no formaldehyde exposure had an almost three times greater rate of mortality from motor neurone disease, known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in the US and what it was referred to as in the study.

Those who had high probability of exposure coupled with high intensity - reflecting the frequency and level of exposure - were more than four times as likely to die, although the number who did so was very small, at two.

The same rates were not found to be the case in women, but researchers said this could be because the amount of women in the study with exposure to high levels of formaldehyde was too s mall.

They also pointed out that female funeral directors are more likely to interact with bereaved clients and less likely to actually carry out any embalming than their male colleagues.

The study, which is published online in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, analysed nearly 1.5 million people and found all the men who reported high levels of exposure were funeral directors.

The team, led by Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, said their results should be interpreted cautiously as the study was purely observational and in addition to formaldehyde, funeral directors are exposed to other chemicals used in embalming as well as to all kinds of pathogens.

But they said previous experimental research has linked formaldehyde to nerve damage.

"Further study of the association of ALS with high levels of formaldehyde exposure and among funeral directors is warranted," they added.

Alan Slater, chief executive officer of the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), said that with families increasingly wanting to view their loved ones in the chapel of rest and an often longer gap between death and the funeral, embalming has become a popular choice in the UK.

But he said that none of the association's members had ever reported any health-related side effects from formaldehyde and strict guidelines were in place for when using it.

"With bereaved families increasingly requesting to view their loved ones in chapels of rest, together with a lengthening time period between death and the funeral, embalming is in common use by funeral firms as the only effective method of delaying decomposition and preserving the appearance of a deceased person," he said.

"As the main trade association for the profession, the National Association of Funeral Directors requires its 3,800 funeral home members to abide by a code of professional standards which includes strict guidelines on the safe use and storage of all chemicals used in the care of bodies, including formaldehyde.

"These guidelines include the use of appropriate protective clothing and equipment, ensuring all HSE (Health and Safety Executive) and Coshh (control of substances hazardous to health) health and safety standards are met and a strict adherence to manufacturers' instructions.

"In addition, many NAFD funeral directors study for the professional qualifications offered by the British Institute of Embalmers.

"As a result of the sensible approach of our members in abiding by these various requirements the NAFD has not, to date, been made aware of any health-related issues amongst our member firms as a result of proximity to embalming fluid."

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