Cremation’s popularity awakens mercury fears
Tuesday, 08 August 2006
BAY AREA: Neighbors protest poor regulation of emissions, which can poison the local watershed
As the popularity of cremation grows in California, communities are increasingly worried about mercury emissions from crematoriums, spurring residents to stage large, emotional protests.
Several cities in the Bay Area have joined the fight, most recently Richmond, where more than 150 people packed the City Council Chamber earlier this month in response to a proposal for a facility that would have cremated more than 3,000 bodies a year.
They carried banners that read, “Over my dead body.”
“We are here to say ‘no’ to this sneak toxic attack on our community,” Henry Clark, a North Richmond resident and executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, told the council. “We will never accept this crematorium in our community, period.”
The council quickly and without ceremony rejected a proposal to allow cremation in all the city’s zoning districts.
So while a rising number of Californians embraces cremation as a funeral ritual, politicians, environmentalists, health officials and local communities are expressing alarm about mercury emissions from amalgam dental fillings and what they say is poor government oversight.
Growth of an industry
The number of cremations in California has grown by 10 percent over the past five years, with 54 percent of the state’s dead now being cremated. By 2010, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that 65 percent of those who die in California will be cremated.
With 122,000 cremations in 2004, California was tops in the country; nationwide, there were just fewer than 700,000 cremations that year.
Driving the industry’s growth are affordability — with an average cost of $1,500 per cremation — relaxed religious restrictions and an influx of immigrants who regard cremation as tradition, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
To cope with the rising rate of cremation in Europe, countries such as Great Britain, Germany, Sweden and Norway have enacted strong regulations to reduce mercury emissions. But in the United States, there is still debate about whether there is even a problem.
“We’re really in the dark ages in this country when it comes to regulating crematoriums,” said Michael Bender, the executive director of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project. “In Britain, they recognize the problem and have taken steps to reduce mercury emissions by 50 percent within the next six years.”
There is no need to regulate cremation at all because the environmental impact is so small, said Jack Springer, the Cremation Association’s executive director. A 1999 report sponsored by the Cremation Association and the federal Environmental Protection Agency said cremation accounted for just 238 pounds of mercury nationwide.
“Cremation emissions are not regulated under the Clean Air Act, because they are under all EPA standards,” he said. “You’re exposed to more mercury just by walking into a dentist office.”
“People are dying with more teeth, not fewer, because of better dental care” he said. “But those teeth are loaded with mercury-laced fillings.”
Citing a study by a coalition of eastern states and the British government, Bender said the typical corpse contains 3 grams of mercury fillings.
That means in California alone, cremations were responsible for 807 pounds of mercury emissions in 2004. In the Bay Area, 24,769 bodies were cremated in 2005, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Using Bender’s formula, that equates to 164 pounds of mercury emissions in the nine-county region.
To put those numbers in perspective, it takes just 1 gram of mercury in a lake of 27 surface acres to trigger elevated toxic levels in fish, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That means that fish in a body of water the size of the San Pablo Reservoir would likely become contaminated by 32 grams of mercury.
Mercury is particularly dangerous to fetuses and children. Exposure can lead to irreversible neurological damage that results in memory loss, attention deficit and other learning disabilities, according to the EPA.
People most commonly ingest mercury by eating fish. The state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has issued standing warnings, especially for children and women of childbearing age, to sharply limit consumption of certain fish from San Francisco Bay and 10 reservoirs, including the San Pablo and Lafayette reservoirs.
Although the majority of mercury emissions come from oil refineries, municipal waste incinerators and cement plants, cremation is quickly becoming a major contributor, say environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, Baykeeper and Clean Water Action.
For example, a crematorium that cremates 3,000 bodies a year would emit an estimated 20 pounds of mercury, using the estimate of 3 grams per corpse. By comparison, the ConocoPhillips Refinery in Rodeo emitted 81 pounds in 2004, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
The state’s 35 air quality management districts oversee crematoriums. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District evaluates all proposed crematoriums in the nine-county district for potential health impacts from a variety of toxic substances, including mercury. But the district analyzes potential harm within only several hundred feet of crematorium smoke stacks.
“We calculate risk for a new facility, and for mercury, the impacts have been low,” Air Quality Engineering Manager Scott Lutz said. “Individually and cumulatively, crematorium emissions are insignificant.”
But mercury emissions affect the watershed, and the cumulative impact from all sources is not effectively regulated by any government agency, said Sjal Choksi, director of the San Francisco chapter of Baykeeper.
“The Regional Water Quality Control Board says it’s the air districts’ responsibility, and the air board is not paying attention,” Choksi said.
There are signs that the air district is taking mercury emission more seriously. Based on a report by the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the air district has drastically reduced mercury’s minimal acceptable harm level from 57.9 to 0.056 pounds annually.
Still, there are no regulations that require crematoriums to reduce mercury emissions.
One solution is to install “mercury scrubbers” — expensive devices that remove mercury from smoke stack vapors. Another is to remove amalgam fillings from corpses.
“Mercury scrubbers are very expensive and unnecessary,” the Cremation Association’s Springer said. “And as far as removing teeth, there are legal complications. In any case, families just won’t stand for it.”
Meanwhile, the public continues its love-hate relationship with cremation, and the industry is having a hard time finding room to grow.
Richmond’s recent action was just the latest setback in the area.
In 2004, the San Rafael City Council shunted cremation to strictly industrial areas, and San Leandro outright banned cremation anywhere in city limits.
And the Alameda County Planning Commission has stalled a proposed 40-acre cemetery and crematorium in Livermore until more information about mercury emissions is gathered.
“One of the major challenges across the country is getting a crematorium put anywhere,” Springer said.