Cremation a hazard to the living?
Cremation a hazard to the living?
One mortician says he'd rather get out of the business than be compelled
to pull the teeth of the deceased.
By DeeDee Correll
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 26, 2007
FORT COLLINS, COLO. --- Rick Allnutt has closed all but one section of
his funeral home on the north end of town.
The chapel is dark and quiet, the reception hall bare. But in the bay
out back, two side-by-side ovens rumble as the 1,650-degree heat blasts
two corpses into bone and ash.
Allnutt has moved the rest of the business to another location and wants
to move his crematory to a site near a cemetery in Larimer County, but
he has reached a stalemate with health officials there. They are
concerned about what they see as a potential health risk to the living
-- mercury being released into the atmosphere from dental fillings of
They want him to do something that may be unprecedented in this country:
Install a filter on his crematory's smokestack or extract teeth of the
deceased before cremation.
Allnutt refuses to do either, calling the first option too expensive and
the second ghoulish.
"I'm not going to be the only one in the world who says I'll pull teeth
from dead bodies," he said.
Across the United States, the issue is cropping up: Do mercury emissions
from dental fillings of corpses incinerated in crematories pose a
threat? And if so, how should it be handled?
In Colorado, it's something that health officials are only now
examining, said Mark McMillan, manager of the Department of Public
Health and Environment's mercury program.
"We're on the cusp of starting to understand it," he said.
The cremation industry, on the other hand, insists there's no evidence
of danger and calls Allnutt's situation "a dangerous precedent."
At issue are amalgam dental fillings. Amalgam -- an alloy of mercury
with another metal such as silver, copper or tin -- is commonly used to
When a body is burned, mercury from such fillings vaporizes. Once
released into the atmosphere, mercury returns to Earth in rain or snow,
ending up in lakes and other bodies of water where it can lead to
elevated levels of mercury in fish. In humans, mercury damages the
nervous system and can harm childhood development. Power plants,
especially those that burn coal, are by far the largest source of
preventable mercury releases; Environmental Protection Agency
regulations have been adopted to reduce those emissions.
As cremation continues to gain popularity in the United States, the
issue may gain more traction.
According to the Cremation Assn. of North America, a 2005 survey found
46% of Americans planned to choose cremation, compared with 31% in 1990.
Its use varies widely by region: In Nevada and Hawaii, two-thirds of
bodies were cremated in 2005; in a number of Southern states, a tenth were.
The EPA does not regulate emissions from crematories, spokeswoman Margot
Perez-Sullivan said. It estimates that about 600 pounds of mercury, less
than 1% of all mercury emissions, come from crematories in the U.S.
every year. (By contrast, the British government requires new
crematories to install filters to cut mercury emissions, according to
the British Broadcasting Corp. It estimates that fillings account for
16% of mercury emissions in the United Kingdom, where the cremation rate
is greater than 70%.)
In recent years, several states have taken stabs at the issue.
In Minnesota, state Sen. John Marty repeatedly has sought -- and failed
-- to pass a law requiring crematory operators to remove teeth or
He said crematories in Minnesota emit an estimated 68 pounds of mercury
every year -- 3% to 5% of mercury emissions in the state. Though
coal-fired power plants constitute the greatest problem, Marty said, "we
have to go after every source. But it's not easy politically because
people are really squeamish about talking about corpses."
In 2005 Maine lawmakers considered, but defeated, a similar bill.
Colorado does not regulate crematories' mercury emissions, which state
health officials estimate at about 110 pounds per year.
But the state health department last year began examining the issue.
Funded by the EPA, the effort seeks to reduce the amount of mercury
emitted through voluntary partnerships with crematory operators, said
McMillan, the program's manager.
So far, collaboration appears unlikely to succeed.
"Their assumptions are all incorrect," said Mark Matthews, a director
for the Cremation Assn. of North America. "There's a battle over
something that doesn't exist. The data doesn't add up, and the science
He said no studies had found higher concentrations of mercury near
crematories, and he pointed out that the EPA does not regulate them.
Even if there were a problem, Matthews said, the proposed solution is
"unworkable." For one, he said, families often have viewings before a
cremation; removing the teeth probably would mean disfiguring the face.
And the idea is upsetting to grieving relatives, he said. "To suggest
that we ought to remove the teeth is completely insensitive to the
families we serve."
In Larimer County, the issue came to a head this year when Allnutt
applied for a special-use permit to relocate his crematory, which
conducts 450 cremations per year.
Neighbors immediately seized on the mercury issue.
"There's a very real problem," said Dennis Lynch, a retired forest
sciences professor at Colorado State University who read the available
research and wrote a paper on his findings. "Crematoriums have gotten a
free pass for a long time. We should be asking them to do their civic
responsibility and do prevention of some kind."
Allnutt, who owns a chain of funeral homes in northern Colorado, hired a
consultant to estimate the facility's potential effects. In a worst-case
scenario, a model found that mercury levels could rise above recommended
short-term exposure limits.
The findings persuaded Doug Ryan, Larimer County's environmental-health
planner, to recommend that county commissioners grant Allnutt's permit
only if he agreed to reduce emissions. The county has the authority to
do so, Ryan said, because applicants for special-use permits must show
that their facility will be compatible with their surroundings. In this
case, Ryan said, compatibility means preventing mercury exposure.
At a planning commission meeting in November, Allnutt made his stand,
and the county planning commission, an advisory board, voted against
granting him a permit. Allnutt hasn't decided whether to pursue a
hearing before the Board of Commissioners.
The county was unfair, he said, in asking him to do something none of
his competitors must do. Installing a smokestack filter at $500,000
would put him at an automatic disadvantage, he said.
But he also said he'll never pull teeth -- even if it means getting out
of the cremation business. "I won't do that," Allnutt said. "It's a
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