US fears the curse of the pickled dead

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The Independent Online
CALIFORNIANS, traditionally the first to sound the alarm about a new environmental scare, are now getting worried about the deadliest pollution threat yet - chemicals seeping from the grave.

Top state officials say they are "very concerned" that embalming fluid - almost universally used to preserve Americans in pristine condition for the hereafter - ends up in drinking water. The problem is also being investigated in Britain, where a review of the "pollution potential of cemeteries" is close to completion for the official Environment Agency.

Embalming - described and derided in Jessica Mitford's classic work The American Way Of Death - involves filling the arteries and body cavities with some 31/2 gallons of formaldehyde. But the chemical, which is suspected of causing cancer, is so toxic that the US government regards it as hazardous waste.

If an American funeral director were to dump the chemical in a hole in the ground, he could be prosecuted and fined. But seven million gallons of the stuff are buried quite legally every year in dead bodies.

Arsenic, used to embalm bodies in the last century, is turning up in ground water in some parts of the US and many experts believe that much of it comes from old cemeteries. Carl Hauge, chief hydrologist for the California Department of Water Resources, says he expects the formaldehyde is getting into drinking water too. "Most technical people are very concerned about it," he said.

Nobody knows the size of the problem because municipal water authorities in the US don't test for formaldehyde, no one is monitoring water near cemeteries, and there is not even a standard for the levels allowed in supplies. But Scott Hill, water director for Riverton, Utah, says: "A degree of hazard is there." Rainwater will carry contaminants with it. Last year he unsuccessfully opposed plans to build a new cemetery near the wells that serve the city.

Far fewer corpses in Britain are embalmed, and generally less formaldehyde is used than in the US. But earlier this decade high levels of the chemical were found seeping into a freshly dug grave at Northwood Cemetery, west London. The Ministry of the Environment in Ontario, Canada, has found low levels of the chemical in water.

Julie Weatherington-Rice, an environmental consultant specialising in the issue, believes that the problem has not yet reached its peak.

"Formaldehyde is going to show up, but it is going to take a while," she told Mother Jones magazine. "We are probably drinking great-grandmother Maud right now, more than we are someone who died last Saturday night."