Cremation pollution? Neighbors nervous

Henry Clark, left, and Johnny White are two of the activists in Richmond, Calif., who blocked the building behind them from becoming a cremoratorium.
Henry Clark, left, and Johnny White are two of the activists in Richmond, Calif., who blocked the building behind them from becoming a cremoratorium.Jeff Chiu / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Plans to build new crematoriums are running into resistance around the country over a fear some scientists say is overblown: toxic emissions, especially mercury fumes from incinerating dental fillings.

Silver fillings contain trace amounts of mercury, a substance that can harm brain development in children. Mercury from industrial plants has found its way into rivers, lakes and oceans, tainting many types of seafood.

Industry officials say crematoriums are safe and meet all government air-quality standards. And some scientists say the amount of mercury in fillings is so small as to pose little or no danger.

But that’s of little interest to Richmond residents who fought plans to build a crematorium in the poor, mostly black city across the bay from San Francisco.

“You’re burning bodies, and the emissions are going up into the air,” said community leader Johnny White. “They can put it somewhere else, away from where people live.”

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates crematoriums emit 320 pounds of mercury per year, while activists say the real figure could be as high as three tons.

Even the higher figure is a tiny share of the more than 100 tons of mercury pumped into the atmosphere in the U.S. each year, mainly from coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources.

Alexis Cain, an environmental scientist with the EPA in Chicago, said of mercury from fillings: “I don’t think it’s a risk to people who live in the vicinity of crematoriums.”

Big increase in cremations
Just 6 percent of Americans were cremated in 1975. By 2004, 31 percent — or 741,000 people — chose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America. California leads the country with 122,000 cremations performed in 2004.

People are choosing cremation because it is less expensive and is perceived as more eco-friendly, since land is not used for burial, industry officials say.

The soaring popularity of cremation is driving demand for more crematoriums. There are currently more than 1,800 in the U.S., and about 200 new ones are built each year.

In California, residents of Hayward, San Leandro and San Rafael have all waged campaigns to block new crematoriums. Similar protests have erupted in other states and countries. In Texas, the Rowlett City Council in October unanimously rejected plans for a funeral home and crematorium after residents voiced fears about mercury.

The Neptune Society of Northern California ran into unexpectedly fierce opposition in Richmond when it proposed a crematorium that would incinerate more than 3,000 bodies a year within two blocks of a daycare center and children’s park. Facing protesters carrying banners reading “Over my dead body,” the City Council voted in July to deny the necessary zoning change.

“We don’t want to be guinea pigs,” said Henry Clark, who heads the West County Toxic Coalition in Richmond. “These things are not properly regulated. There’s a scarcity of information on what chemicals they use in the process, and what is actually released.”

Paul Rahill, an environmental consultant at the Chicago-based Cremation Association of North America, said the industry has been unfairly tarnished. “From an environmental standpoint, crematories are a non-issue,” Rahill said.

Remove fillings?
One solution could be to remove mercury fillings from corpses before cremation, but industry officials say many families would object because their loved ones could be disfigured. Another solution is to install emissions controls on crematorium smokestacks, but industry officials say that could be expensive and put small operators out of business.

The use of dental silver with mercury has dropped off in the United States from about two-thirds of all fillings in 1990 to about 30 percent today, according to the American Dental Association. But many baby boomers still have silver in their mouths.

“When the current generation of baby boomers passes away, we’re the ones that are going to put the most mercury in the atmosphere,” said John Reindl, a recycling manager in Dane County, Wis., who has researched the issue. “Now’s the time when we really need to handle this issue.”