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Environmental objections to embalming fluid

2 July 2008

Environmental objections to embalming fluid

The Natural Burials organisation today said a promise by the New Zealand Embalmers Association to investigate the environmental safety of embalming fluid might help the Association learn about the hazardous chemical it uses every day.

Mark Blackham, founder of the organisation behind New Zealand’s first natural cemetery, said it was an indictment on embalmers that they were not already aware of the international studies into embalming fluid, nor of the way the environment works.

“Embalmers have been pumping tens of thousands of litres of chemicals into dead bodies every year, but this suggests they have not been aware of the well-documented danger of chemicals in embalming fluid.

“Embalming fluid is a hazardous chemical. It works because it kills and “freezes” living cells,” Mr Blackham said.

He said the Embalmers Association should first review existing literature [some helpfully listed for them at the end of this release].

The most definitive recent study was by the UK National Groundwater Centre, a division of the UK Environment Agency. In 2002 it reported that formaldehyde used in the embalming process leaches back into the ground as a low level soil contaminant. In contrast, it found that natural burials pose no environmental threat at all.

“Research has found that the chemicals remain in the soil for about ten years. The dynamic nature of the soil environment means it is very hard to study the amount of death caused to microorganisms by embalming fluid during its decade-long active state.”

Mr Blackham said it was incumbent on the Embalmers to ensure their study was truly independent, and conducted by respected, experienced and skilled scientists. It would need to examine the real-life physical action of all embalming fluids in the soil.

“As natural burials gets soil to the body quickly, to speed decomposition, we are very interested in how the soil, plants and organisms handle interaction with embalming chemicals,” he said.

Mr Blackham said the objectivity of the Embalmers Association was questionable given its assertion that viruses in unembalmed bodies might stay in the soil, endangering people in the future.

“The assertion that unembalmed bodies leave viruses in the soil is scientific ignorance at the least, and deliberate fear-mongering at worst.

“Infectious disease-causing viruses and pathogens pass between living people and their excrement. These pathogens die with the host body within 24 hours.

“There are already plenty of microorganisms naturally present in soil which can cause illness – such as Listeria monocytogenes, Clostridium botulinum and Bacillus cereus. They do not come from dead humans under the soil. They are permanent and essential features of the ecosystem. Many breed on the surface level excrement of live animals, like humans.

“Compounding their display of scientific illiteracy, the Embalmers suggest that embalming fluid kills human viruses but leaves every other micro-organism, especially those in the soil, alive.

“No one, not even the makers of embalming fluid, realised this hazardous chemical cocktail had such incredible powers of discernment between living organisms.

“At first I thought the crazy idea was evidence of the statistical fact that embalmers are more likely to get brain cancer through handling embalming fluid.

“But maybe they aren’t crazy - if they are right, it would be a truly amazing discovery – and would deliver commercial benefits to the New Zealand Embalmers Association way beyond the cost of the research,” Mr Blackham said.

Mr Blackham said the Embalmers Association missed the point of objections to embalming.

1) Embalming is not wanted by some people. People are already choosing not to be embalmed or have a family member embalmed. It's their choice and their right not to use the services and products of embalmers, just as they choose any other product or service.

2) Embalming slows decomposition: We want return of the body’s nutrients to the soil at the natural speed and in the natural way.

3) Embalming is unnecessary: Embalming is not needed because there are no health or visual threats posed by at least 95% of dead bodies, and most bodies are usually buried or cremated within five days.

3) Embalming introduces chemicals to the soil: natural burials reduces the artificially produced material and chemicals in a burial. As embalming fluid serves no purpose before burial, we certainly do not want to add it to the soil.


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