Preserving the Dead
They are called funeral directors, morticians, undertakers, mortuary custodians, and funeral service professionals. Those soft-spoken individuals who counsel grieving family members and help plan the service after a loved one dies are likely also the ones who handle the technical aspects of preserving the deceased so that family and friends can say goodbye in a less clinical setting than a hospital or nursing home. Unfortunately, part of this job – the embalming part – can create toxic fumes that pose health hazards for the professional.
Preserving a body after death is a temporary measure used to slow decay for wakes and funerals that precede a burial. For optimal results, funeral professionals need to inject at least 3 gallons of embalming fluid into a cadaver’s arterial system and body cavity. Embalming fluids are made of strong chemicals, often containing a combination of formaldehyde (up to 50%), methanol or ethanol, and water. Among these chemical substances, it’s the formaldehyde that poses the greatest threat.
Formaldehyde is colorless, flammable, and pungent. In addition to its use as a preservative in labs and funeral homes, it is widely used as an industrial disinfectant and germicide. It is also a common element in construction materials such as insulation, plywood, and fiberboard. (1) You only need to pick up an item and read the ingredient list to realize that formaldehyde is commonly found in household products such as glues and adhesives, permanent-press fabrics, and paper product coatings.
Formaldehyde also occurs naturally in the environment. It is created in small amounts by most living organisms as part of normal metabolic processes. (2) But it is not the moderate amounts found in everyday products, nor organically formed formaldehyde, that should give cause for concern. It is elevated levels of formaldehyde – even a little bit too much – that can be a dangerous thing.
Formaldehyde Can Prove Deadly for Indoor Air Quality
Unsafe formaldehyde exposure occurs most often in an occupational setting through inhalation. In liquid form, it can be absorbed through the skin. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, formaldehyde is typically present at low levels in both indoor and outdoor air (2) and the primary route of exposure for the average person is by breathing air containing off-gassed formaldehyde. (3)
Workers, however, may come in contact with formaldehyde at much higher levels than the average person. During the normal course of the workday, healthcare workers, lab techs, teachers who handle biological substances, or morticians who handle embalming fluids, can inhale elevated doses of formaldehyde gases or vapors. (4)
The negative health effects can include mild irritation such as itching or burning of the eyes, nose, and throat, or more concerning symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and nausea. (3) (4) Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde, whereas others have no obvious reaction to the same level of exposure. (1) But at the highest levels, that of embalmers, for example, the hazard of most concern is the threat of cancer.
The following medical research groups – both government and independent – have deemed formaldehyde “a known carcinogen”:
The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is formed from parts of several different US government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). IARC has concluded that formaldehyde is “carcinogenic to humans” based on higher risks of nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), an electronic database that contains information on human health effects from exposure to various substances in the environment.
National Cancer Institute researchers have concluded that, based on data from studies in people and from lab research, exposure to formaldehyde may cause leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia, in humans. (2)
Despite all the research indicating formaldehyde is a cancer-causing substance, it is still the chemical of choice for those in the business of preserving bodies. And those with the highest exposure to the substance, will, of course, have the highest risk for contracting the deadly disease. To this point, Science Daily published findings that indicate specificity as to the type of cancer that poses the greatest risk to embalmers:
The number of years of embalming practice and related formaldehyde exposures was associated with statistically significantly increased mortality from myeloid leukemia, with the greatest risk among those who practiced embalming for more than 20 years. (5)
Formaldehyde Risk Reduction
So long as funeral professionals continue to use formaldehyde as their main source of chemical preservation, risk reduction methods beyond personal protective gear seem advisable and the implementation of practical engineering and work practice controls will greatly reduce worker exposure. (4)
While most businesses that work with formaldehyde-based embalming fluids currently comply with OSHA’s recommendations on safe work measures in the form of protective clothing, not all go a step further and install source capture equipment and/or ambient air-cleaning systems. This additional precaution is one more way to prevent indoor air pollution and eliminate any health risks for workers.
At Air Systems Inc., we serve our customers in the funeral service profession by providing indoor air quality management solutions in addition to our stellar air-cleaning products. Contact us today for a free air quality assessment with one of our skilled and experienced clean air specialists.