Why Cremation Is Not A Green Choice

Cremation:  3 Reasons Not to Choose Cremation

  1. Cremation is a huge climate change contributor: each cremation uses about 28 gallons of fuel and releases about 540 lbs. of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Estimates from the UK say their cremations contribute about 16% of total climate emissions. There are no statistics by the EPA, though 70% of westerners unknowingly elect cremation.
  2. About 1.7 Billion pounds of CO2 are emitted every year in the US alone from about a million cremated bodies.
  3. Mercury vapors, plastic body bags, and plastic implants cause poisonous vapors to enter the airstream and eventually the water table.  Given the established science between mercury vapors and Alzheimer’s Disease (the 3rd leading cause of death in the US now), cremation cannot be consider environmentally-responsible with the release of mercury pollution into the air we breathe.  According to science, no amount of mercury is considered safe in any amount or form.
  • Mercury pollution is also the issue for “Water Cremation” or Alkaline Hydrolysis, purported by the funeral industry as the latest “green” alternative to oven Cremation.  AH does not address the responsible handling of mercury, which is extremely toxic to humans, handlers and the environment.  There are no studies done outside the industry or by the EPA to assess the handling of dental mercury and plastics. Are these all washed down the drain into sewage as toxic particles to end up in the ocean once again?

Additional statistics relating to cremation pollution:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency estimates crematoriums emit 320 pounds of mercury per year, while activists say the real figure could be as high as three tons in 2007. A review of a study done by the EPA that estimated emissions from dental amalgam has since been underestimated. The United Nations Environmental Programme current (2019) accounts indicate that 340 tons (680,000 pounds) of mercury is discharged into the environment from dental amalgam, 100 tons of which enters the waste stream. From cremation, tooth loss, human waste and infectious waste are released significant releases, and it was determined that cremation is the most critical because of the invisibility of vapors into the air without adequate or appropriate filters.

  • Mercury in dental amalgams has been banned in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. However it is estimated by the EU EPA that 1,500 tonnes (200,000 pounds) of mercury is held in human bodies and will be released in cremation, with 75% of 500 million EU residents having had mercury fillings in their older generations, 1,500 tons (3 million pounds) total mercury in their bodies to become cremated. Http://www.eea.europea.eu/publications

  • Overall the US has a 51% cremation rate, while Oregon and Washington have 70% rates mostly due to the myth in advertising that cremation saves on cemetery land use and is therefore “green”. However, Neptune Society, the largest funeral monopoly in the US, will not comment about high fossil fuel use or about mercury vapor emissions, claiming instead that cremation is “green”.

  • 340 tons of dental mercury in the world is dumped directly into waste water systems, 34 tons at minimum in the U.S. In 2008, the average European held 2-5 grams of mercury in their bodies, while the allowable amounts are zero grams.

  • For an excellent discussion of the link between mercury vapors in the environment and the link with Alzheimer’s Disease (the 3rd largest cause of death in the US), watch the documentary

    Evidence of Harm” a youtube video by AD researcher Dr Boyd Haley, PhD. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wqb4fDSQDjQ and http://Evidence-of-Harm.com

    This is a documentation of Dr Haley’s 26 year NIH career linking mercury toxicity with Lewy bodies in Alzheimer’s Disease and other neurological diseases.

It is commonly thought that cremation is more environmentally-friendly because it seems to simplify the funeral/burial process and minimizes land use for cemeteries and their inherent pollutants. However, research shows the facts which reveal disturbing problems for the environment. In our research into the effects of cremation on the environment, there was a strange lack of studies, particularly by the EPA and U.S. government.

In 2012, the EPA Crematorium Working Group reported that crematoria are significant sources of mercury, dioxin, and particulate matter. Incineration of bodies, body parts, and infectious and chemotherapeutic wastes collectively represent the second largest known source of dioxin and mercury pollution in the US. The World Health Organization, the US EPA and other public health experts consider any level, no matter how low, of emissions of mercury, dioxins, furans, and particulate matter from incineration to be a threat to human health. Vulnerable populations such as babies, children, women of childbearing age, and the elderly are particularly at risk from exposure to these toxins. Employees who work in these environments, as well as those populations who live near the source are exposed to higher levels of these pollutants.The effects of mercury vapor exposure can last long after the exposure has ended. While typical symptoms and signs, such as tremors, gingivitis and salivation may quickly disappear after exposure has stopped, mechanisms of long-lasting or remote effects have not been investigated. This is possibly due to the damage caused by mercury vapor exposure remaining for a long period of time, or by mercury remaining in the body and continuing to cause adverse effects, or to the prior exposure somehow stimulating aging, resulting in poorer neurobehavioral performance.

The final report of the Senate Crematoria Study Committee was prepared in 2012. This report noted that while there are emissions of other chemicals during the cremation process, mercury is of the most concern to communities near crematoriums. When mercury is burned, it becomes a colorless and odorless gas that can travel long distances. While mercury exposure has the potential to cause a variety of health problems, the brain and kidneys are especially vulnerable. According to Dr. Anne Summers of the University of Georgia, there is no known lower level for toxicity of mercury, and scientists clearly agree that mercury toxicity can have serious consequences on human health.” (from Mercury Contamination from Dental Amalgam, 2019)

Amy Cunningham, a “green” funeral director of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services (and Crematory) in the Greater New York City area writes in her well-known blog:

“Cremation takes up less land and might save some money, but here’s the downside with some crematories:  it takes a lot of fossil fuel to heat that retort (or cremation chamber) to 1800 degrees F and keep it heated for two to three hours… Then perhaps, if you are not satisfied with the answers you’re getting and your family is open to changing plans quite dramatically, consider the love of my life (sorry Steve)–Green Burial. Pine box. Or simple shroud. Drive out of the city and convene in a green cemetery. Let your loved one descend into the soil naturally–without chemicals or vaults or barriers to Mother Nature.”

More studies and research have been done in Europe in recent decades as the rate of cremation has increased slowly over the last century. Several articles reveal periodic surveys of literature over twenty years that showed a largely unregulated industry by the US Environmental Protection Agency. At the grassroots level, citizens in both Canada and in over 35 U.S. states have set up blocks and ordinances, built a library of research for other states to refer to and assisted in local initiatives to deconstruct or prevent the further building of crematories.

Several studies in the last two decades have shown a correlation between local crematories and stillbirth, anencephaly, and increasingly widespread air pollution containing toxic gases. Finally, a visit to the Crematorium will show you that both the time a family can say goodbye to their loved one’s body and naturally move through the letting-go process is very minimized and tends to make the grief process interrupted.

Cremation involves a box or casket containing the body to be placed in a steel incinerator and heated to temperatures from 7600 to 21000 F. At the highest temperature, most of the body is vaporized and oxidized as water within about two hours. However, gases released are then temporarily held in a second metal chamber or “filter” and then released to the outside air through an exhaust system.

It is commonly thought that crematories have “filters” –adjacent storage tanks that are supposed to catch and “hold” toxins such as mercury.  The EPA’s answer to this has been to add a second “chimney” in effort to somehow “catch” some of the toxic vapors.

“Gaseous emissions are by far the greatest source of cremation pollution and thus far the only crematorium waste that is regulated. In addition to harmless compounds such as water vapor, emissions include:

  • the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide
  • extremely toxic mercury vapors
  • toxins and carcinogens of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur oxide;
  • volatile acids such as hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride, both of which form during vaporization of plastics and insulation
  • compounds such as benzenes, furans and acetone are also emitted and react with HCl and HF under combustion conditions to form polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs), both of which cause cancer.

“These and mercury are of special concern because they are susceptible to bioaccumulation.”

An estimated one-third of all air-borne mercury pollution is due to the cremation of bodies containing mercury from dental amalgams in the deceased person’s mouth. In a “Summary of References on Mercury Emissions from Crematoria, September 25, 2012”, Jon Reindl, P.E. investigated studies in both the U.S. and Europe for three aspects of cremation: mercury emissions, deposits in filters and chimneys, and mercury found in cremains (cremation ash):

“Crematoria represent a significant source of mercury emissions to the environment. While estimates of the quantities vary significantly, it appears that each cremation releases between 2 and 4 grams, with the maximum seen by this reviewer at 8.6 grams in an individual cremation in Switzerland. There has been an increase in the number of cremations annually and forecasts include both a further increase in the number of cremations over time and an increase in the amount of mercury released in the next few decades due to an increase in the number of the deceased having a larger number of their own teeth with amalgam restorations. This increase is expected to be followed by a decrease in mercury emissions from industrialized countries as the next generation of people has both fewer cavities and an increased substitution of amalgam restorations with restorations that do not use mercury.”

“In the US, a mercury flow worksheet developed for Region V of the EPA estimates that in 2005, just under 3,000 kilograms of mercury were released to the environment from cremation to the US. Bender estimates that this will increase to 7,700 kilograms by 2020.”

“Most of the mercury from crematoria is released into the air, although some may collect on the walls of the oven and chimney. Soil surveys have shown that while there is often an elevation of mercury in the topsoils near crematoria, most (over 99%) of the mercury emitted to the air does not settle to the soil in the nearby area, but is instead added to the general atmosphere. Mercury levels in the ash have been only rarely tested, and have been shown to be negligible in those tests.” One wondered what the blood and tissue levels of air-borne mercury is in crematory industry workers who breathe in mercury fumes every day.

“Mercury emissions from crematoria are regulated in few places in the world, although the amount of regulation is slowly growing. Possible control of mercury from crematoria includes the removal of teeth with amalgam restorations before cremation, the use of selenium capsules to bind up the mercury and exhaust gas capture systems. The effectiveness of the selenium capsules is controversial and the effectiveness of the exhaust gas capture systems is not well documented.”

Although laws now require crematoriums to place mercury storage tanks on their incinerators, most of the toxic residues are released. These also include toxic metals or plastics that can leach into the air and then water, causing a public health concern. One study of the Cremation Association of North America found that “filtering crematorium fumes has little effect on the toxins released.” In India, where outdoor cremation has been the norm for thousands of years, air pollution is in the top five highest percent in the world. Meanwhile, more research needs to be done in the U.S. to assess these very real effects of crematory air pollution.

In addition, there is the issue of cremation remains and their dispersal into the air. “Cremains are often sprinkled somewhere in memorial, releasing whatever compounds and toxins found in them back into the environment in a form that is easily picked up by wind or water,” writes Huffman.   A scientific method for analyzing cremains is X-ray diffraction and has found that “calcified compounds within cremains can contain metals such as lead, boron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, tin, lithium, magnesium, manganese, nickel, and strontium. Metals such as arsenic and selenium, though present in a live human body, are volatile and decompose quickly upon burning…  I have found no studies of whether or not sprinkling cremation remains could have a significant impact on the levels of metals in the soil.”  Often the ashes are then stored in metal urns or other non-biodegradable receptacles, and then buried in cemeteries which are already over-filled.  Many cemeteries, particularly in larger US cities, as well as in Japan and Europe have reached maximum use.   In London, a space crisis led to proposals to reopen old graves to create more space for the burial of cremains and the deceased.

“Not all that remains is bone. There may be melted metal lumps from missed jewelry, casket furniture, dental fillings, and surgical implants, such as hip replacements. Breast implants do not have to be removed before cremation. Large items such as titanium hip replacements (which tarnish but do not melt) or casket hinges are usually removed before processing, as they may damage the processor. (If they are missed at first, they must ultimately be removed before processing is complete, as items such as titanium joint replacements are far too durable to be ground.) Implants may be returned to the family, but are more commonly sold as ferrous/non-ferrous scrap metal. After the remains are processed, smaller bits of metal such as tooth fillings, and rings (commonly known as gleanings) are sieved out and may later be interred in common ‘consecrated’ ground in a remote area of the cemetery.”

While cemeteries may have the illusion of holding consecrated ground, they are actually sites of heavy metal waste that accumulate over time and which cause leaching downstream, especially when located adjacent to natural water sources such as creeks, rivers, and oceans as is more common in older cemeteries.

On a more positive note, Community Awareness Network (CAN!) is an informal grassroots organization that advocates on the local, state and national levels for change in the way the crematory industry in America is being operated and regulated. It “educates communities about the real nature of toxins in crematory emissions and what they can do to succeed when faced with the challenge of preventing or stopping a crematory from operating in a residential area or near schools and daycare facilities.”

As of 2015, CAN has grown to 55 individual communities in 35 states. Originally, it started as a small group of volunteers and then grew to 700 residents who organized a protest that successfully proved to their county planning department that their town was too densely populated to accommodate a crematorium. They believe no more communities should have to absorb another crematory that is unsafe for public health and the environment.

The CAN Website reports:

“When first faced with this daunting task, it was noticed that there are communities who had challenged crematories near their residential areas … but with varied results. Wanting to learn from the success stories, and the failures, many hours were spent online searching blogs and forums of newspapers around the country. The successful communities all had one thing in common: someone in that community was willing and able to stop everything else they were doing and devote their energy to finding the data, and these voluntary warriors motivated their neighbors to act.  These communities fought back and won – but at a huge cost. The cost was so great to most of these “activists/advocates” that once the fight was over, they mostly just wanted to go back to their normal lives. Who could blame them?  The fight is exhausting.  The only reward is winning – preventing or stopping or even closing down a crematory.  There is no financial gain, only the stop-loss prevention of property devaluation and keeping one more pollution source away.  For the communities that have lost – the cost to their health, homes, and happiness has no measure.  How can you measure that? It was decided that no community should ever have to re-invent the wheel when faced with a crematory near their homes.  No community should win or lose based on whether or not there is a volunteer activist among them. No more communities should have to spend months of research just to determine if the crematory is going to be unsafe and then prove that to their local government authority.”

Is it not strange that a government agency such as the EPA would not preventatively or even extensively study the toxic emissions of cremation? Why is the cremation industry largely unregulated when there clearly are toxic gas emissions? With cremation reaching an all-time high of nearly 50-70%, and with humanity’s huge impact on the environment worldwide over the last two centuries, the mercury and gaseous emissions of our cremains must now be extensively studied, and existing crematoria must be regulated by local, state or federal agencies.  Further building of crematoria should be halted while alternatives for our deceased and their descendants and environment should be put first.  Alternatives include green burial which allows for the natural return of our bodies to the earth.

Finally, cremation does not allow for the necessary time essential for the natural letting-go and grief process that is made “real” for people with burial. People tend to “send away” the body, or if they actually visit the Crematory, there is a short amount of time to “say goodbye” to their loved one’s body. Numerous experiences and videos show how there is limited time at a crematory. The “industrial” environment of cement walls and steel ovens has little ambiance of emotional safety for the grieving person or family. The grief process then tends to be aborted or put off for some other time when it is more “convenient”. Although some families have a memorial prior to cremation there is often still a lingering feeling of difficulty accepting that a loved one has died. A grief that is complicated from a sudden loss, traumatic accident or suicide becomes even more difficult when the body is boxed away and cremated before a person can fully accept it and come to terms with the surreal feeling, numbness and other feelings specific to these types of loss.

With memorialization and burial, there is much more time to see the body, tend to it, and bury a beloved in a final goodbye with an attitude of acceptance and in a timely way. Grave-side funerals also allow for the influence of nature, where we can see that everyone is given the gift of both birth and death in the natural life cycle. With the twenty-year-old natural burial movement, which is really a return to ancient million-year-old traditions, there is much more involvement by the family to be involved in natural deathcare, even if a funeral home is involved. The movement invites people to spend up to 3 days being with their loved one in a home vigil, home funeral, and natural rites of passage that ease and more quickly heal the grief process.

References

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Cremation Pollution: Neighbors Nervous: As Practice Grows, Some Question Mercury Emissions from Burning Fillings. T. Chea. Associated Press. NBC News 2007.

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