A Grave Mistake

gravestone
Photo credit: Creative Commons – “FP2012 Week 12 – Cemeteries 2 #fp2012” by retrokatz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Lurking 6 feet deep in cemeteries across the country is something very deadly and frightening. No, it’s not the beginning of a zombie apocalypse, but it is a grave mistake.1

At several locations near Civil War-era cemeteries, arsenic has been detected in groundwater. Local scientists believe arsenic is leaching into the water from bodies embalmed with arsenic-based solutions during the late 1800s .2

Arsenic became a common embalming agent during the Civil War before refrigeration was feasible. Family members who wanted their loved ones returned after the war had limited options to ensure their remains would be preserved during the long trek home. Mike Mathews, a mortuary scientist at the University of Minnesota, recounted “Embalmers flocked to battlefields to embalm whoever could afford it and send them home.”3

Morticians created their own proprietary and heavily guarded embalming formulas. One popular formula contained an arsenious acid concentration of 4 ounces per gallon of water and up to 12 pounds of arsenic per body was sometimes used.4 That’s a lot of arsenic!

While no nationwide study on arsenic contamination from gravesites has been performed to date, scientists from the University of Northern Iowa and Hamilton College in New York tested groundwater samples downgradient of the local 1800’s era cemeteries. The water samples tested positive for arsenic and other chemicals associated with early embalming solutions.2,5

Geologists at the University of Toledo confirmed the presence of elevated levels of arsenic and heavy metals associated with casket construction (copper, zinc, lead, and iron) in soil samples taken at the depths where coffins have begun to decay.6

In 1910, the use of arsenic as a preservative was outlawed by the Federal government; primarily because it was causing serious health problems for the morticians. Formaldehyde, now a known carcinogen, quickly took the place of arsenic and soon posed its own health risks, requiring further evolution of embalming solutions.

Currently, many funeral directors use a proprietary blend of glutaraldehyde and formaldehyde which is said to evaporate before it poses a risk to the water table.7 Still, the question of what chemicals, or even pathogens, may be released from our decomposing bodies into the environment is virtually unknown.8

What deadly agent may lie in wait at a cemetery near you?

Image Source: Creative Commons – “FP2012 Week 12 – Cemeteries 2 #fp2012” by retrokatz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

References

1 “Grave Mistake.” Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide 2.0, Project WET Foundation, 1995, pp. 315–319.
2 Harris, Mark. “Arsenic Contamination in Graveyards: How the Dead Are Hurting the Environment.” UTNE Reader, June 2013, https://www.utne.com/environment/arsenic-contamination-ze0z1306zpit. Retrieved October 27, 2019.
3 Bloudoff-Indelicato, Mollie. “Arsenic and Old Graves: Civil War-Era Cemeteries May Be Leaking Toxins.” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/Science-Nature/Arsenic-and-Old-Graves-Civ….” Smithsonian.com, October 30, 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/arsenic-and-old-graves-civ…. Retrieved October 27, 2019.
4 Ibid. Bloudoff-Indelicato, Mollie. “Arsenic and Old Graves: Civil War-Era Cemeteries May Be Leaking Toxins.”
5 Konefes, John L., and Michael K. McGee. “Old Cemeteries, Arsenic, and Health Safety.”, Cultural Resources Management (National Park Service, IX:10, 1996), pp.15-18
6 Spongberg, A.L. & Becks, P.M. Water, Air, & Soil Pollution (2000) 117: 313. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005186919370  Retrieved October 30, 2019.
7 Ibid. Bloudoff-Indelicato, Mollie. “Arsenic and Old Graves: Civil War-Era Cemeteries May Be Leaking Toxins.”
8 Sim, Rachel. “Dead in the Water.” ForesterNetwork.com, May 15, 2018, https://foresternetwork.com/daily/water/stormwater-runoff/dead-in-the-wa… Full Forester Daily Newsletter&utm_campaign=FDN-05252018-Water. Retrieved May 25, 2018.

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