Cremations are growing in popularity as increasing numbers of people choose them over costly burials. Cremations are also seen as more environmentally friendly than burials.
Choosing cremation over burial could save space as it means you don’t need a burial plot. However, what’s not often considered is how the fumes from cremations release a staggering amount of harmful pollution into the air.
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From the cremation coffin to the human body itself, sources for this toxic pollution can vary depending on the person and the materials used. Fortunately, there are ways to make cremations more environmentally friendly so individuals can reduce their impact on air quality and the environment.
Coffins and gas emissions
One of the biggest sources of harmful pollution from crematoriums in the coffin used to contain the deceased’s body. As much as 95% of coffins are manufactured using chipboard or medium-density fiberboard, which contain nitrogen-based resins.
A cremation using these types of coffins typically releases the same amount of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide as a car driving 2,280 miles. These gases are linked to poor urban air quality, smog, acid rain, and tropospheric ozone damage.
The health implications
Health impacts include respiratory problems, inflammation of the lungs, lowered immunity to lung infections, wheezing, coughing, colds, flu, and bronchitis. Poor air quality and air pollution are linked to higher death rates.
Burning chipboard in stoves or log burners is widely discouraged, but it seems the subject is taboo when it comes to cremations.
Nitrogen oxides aren’t the only polluting substances to be concerned about. In areas without mercury abatement regulations, crematoriums could be releasing mercury from dental fillings into the atmosphere.
According to the WHO, exposure to even small amounts of mercury can lead to serious health problems. Mercury is toxic to human organs as well as the nervous, digestive, and immune systems. Mercury can affect the development of children in utero and after birth.
The human body itself could have accumulated toxins such as dioxins through diet. These also get released into the air before dispersing into waterways where they can further affect human and animal health. Dioxins are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, immune system health, and hormonal issues.
It’s time we reinvented sustainability in the cremation industry. Fortunately, some crematoriums are offering paper-based fiberboards that emit a fraction of the nitrogen oxides associated with standard chipboard coffins. Crematoriums can also choose to install nitrogen-oxide filters that, like car-engine filters, reduce the amount of pollution released into the air with each cremation by up to 80%.
Nevertheless, these don’t come cheap as they cost tens of thousands of dollars per filter. It’s no surprise only a small percentage of crematoriums have these installed. Governments may also have an important role to play by more strictly regulating the sector, mandating nitrogen-oxide filters, and enforcing stricter manufacturing standards.
The rise of green funerals
Raising awareness with bereaved families and individuals planning their own funerals could also encourage them to make a more environmentally-friendly choice.
Another way to address the pollution issue could be to bypass cremations altogether. Growing numbers of people are choosing green funerals. Considering the fact even the simplest funerals with cremation can cost many thousands of dollars, a green burial could be an inexpensive and eco-friendly solution.
These natural burials don’t include embalming the body or cremation. The coffin is produced from biodegradable materials such as recycled paper, wicker, or willow and the body is buried in a woodland site, without a headstone and left to decompose.
Things need to change
Cremations might be space-efficient as they don’t need burial plots, but both the body and the coffin can emit deadly toxins into the atmosphere when incinerated. These pollutants have been proven to harm human health, and they linger in the environment, impacting the food chain, and damaging the ozone layer.
To date, the issue hasn’t been given the attention it deserves, but funeral homes, crematoriums, and regulators all have a role to play in reducing the environmental impact of cremation. Finally, bereaved families and people planning their own funerals should be made aware of how their choices can impact air pollution and public health.