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Six feet under and spreading:Embalming fluid from cemeteries contaminates drinking water

Photo By: Erie Cemetery Association 


Heaven Cole, Contributing Writer

 “While there’s no need to fear the walking dead,” Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato wrote in a 2015 Smithsonian article, “homeowners should watch out for toxins leaking out of old graves that could be contaminating drinking water and causing serious health problems.”  Could this be a problem for Erie natives? The Erie Cemetery alone contains more than 50,000 graves dating back to 1851. The Wintergreen Gorge Cemetery is less than three miles from the Penn State Behrend main campus. Laurel Hill Cemetery is approximately five miles from Lake Erie, the source of Erie’s drinking water.  

Bloudoff-Indelicato’s concern was not specifically for those in Erie, but for those living near old cemeteries – specifically, ones filled during the Civil War.  At the beginning of the Civil War in the 1800’s, those soldiers who perished were sent home in ice, the only method to preserve their bodies. This was not successful as cadavers arrived home already decomposing, the ice having melted in the days to weeks it took for the body to reach its final resting place.  Therefore, it was during the Civil War that the American process of embalming was inspired by French methods and used for the preservation and transport of these soldier cadavers. While several embalming fluid recipes were created on the battlefield, the most popular one included arsenic.

Arsenic was effective in slowing body decomposition but failed to break down over time.  As the corpse would rot, the arsenic polluted the surrounding soil. From there, water from rain and flooding moved the arsenic into drinking water.  The federal government found that safe drinking water had ten parts per billion or less of arsenic. One part per billion was equal to a microgram per liter of liquid or, to put it in perspective, “one [part per billion] is like adding a pinch of salt to a [ten] ton bag of potato chips” explained Zane Satterfield in 2014 about what parts per billion meant.  In 2002, triple the safe amount of arsenic was found in Iowa near a Civil War-Era cemetery. The unsafe levels of arsenic washed into drinking water caused ill health effects like cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and different cancers. In the early 1900s, arsenic was outlawed as a component of embalming fluid and replaced with a mixture of glutaraldehyde and formaldehyde.  

Formaldehyde was not without its own consequences.  Even though formaldehyde should break down once it comes into contact with water, making it harmless, there was little research done about if it could become problematic in cemeteries.  If formaldehyde did build up for any reason, it would not be good for the environment or human health as formaldehyde is a carcinogen. Sunette van Allemann, Jana Olivier, and Matthys Dippenaar, as part of their research on the pollution of formaldehyde in cemeteries of South Africa, designed an experiment to find if formaldehyde was leaching into groundwater and, if so, what affected the rate of leaching.  Samples of soil, coffin material, and a formaldehyde solution were set up in a controlled environment that mirrored a cemetery environment. The experiment lasted twenty-four weeks and tested how much formaldehyde leached out of the soil into water based on the type of soil used, the amount of water, and the temperature. The results showed that formaldehyde remained in the soil for fourteen weeks or more. While most of the formaldehyde, approximately 97 percent according to the study, did break down or failed to leach into the water, the accumulation of formaldehyde in water overtime can be an issue.

Cemeteries may be the final resting place for the dearly departed, but have now become a concern for the currently living.  Arsenic was the ingredient used in embalming fluid in the 1800’s that endangered lives even after it was illegalized in the 1900’s due to how it persists in the environment.  According to the 2018 Water Quality Report for Erie Public Water System, only 0.5 to 1.1 parts per billion of arsenic was present in drinking water at the time of water sampling.  This meant that arsenic in drinking water was not a concern for Erie natives. Instead, Formaldehyde took arsenic’s place in the current century. As corpses accumulated in cemeteries, contamination of groundwater increased.  The closer a person lived near a cemetery, especially an older one, the more likely their drinking water was unsafe to ingest. Knowing this, readers may want to consider a different method of burial after death for the sake of those still living.