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Round-the-Clock Cremations Stoke Mercury Fears for Neighborhoods

May 15, 2020, 10:00 AM

With around-the-clock cremations now allowed in some parts of the country to handle the coronavirus’ death toll, a different kind of toll is threatening the living in the low-income communities where those facilities are often clustered.

The increased pace of cremations is likely to increase releases of chemicals from crematory smokestacks, especially mercury, a toxin that can harm the nervous, digestive, and immune systems and can even be fatal. Cremations were responsible for 5.5% of the nation’s mercury emissions in 2017, according to the EPA—mostly from dental fillings, which are vaporized but not consumed during the 1,800-degree cremation process.

Crematories also emit particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide.

“This is our reality—people from East Oakland get years of their life taken away due to the crematorium, which only adds to the other cumulative impacts in my community,” said Cindy Ibarra Morales, an outreach associate with Communities for a Better Environment, referring to a facility a half-mile from her home in Oakland, Calif.

Cremation rates may be as high as 80 percent now in some parts of the country where they’ve historically been less than 50 percent, said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America trade group.

New York-New Jersey Rules

New York City and New Jersey, which have been especially hard-hit by coronavirus deaths, have relaxed their rules on crematories since the virus struck to let them operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Air emissions are still tracked and environmental restrictions remain in place.

Before the pandemic, crematories in New York City typically ran from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., six days a week, said David Fleming, legislative director for the New York State Association of Cemeteries. The changes in New York City don’t apply to the entire state, and were put in place to address “where the bulk of the massive backlog for cremation exists,” Fleming said.

Kemmis acknowledged that most crematories are built near “railroad tracks and smokestacks.”

Crematory operators usually find it easier to locate in low-income communities because residents have fewer resources to fight back, said Dan Sakaguchi, a staff researcher at Communities for a Better Environment who has studied the crematory and funeral home industries.

“Well-resourced communities get to kick out what they don’t want,” Sakaguchi said.

Unknown Emissions

It’s not clear how much the emissions have increased because the number of cremations themselves hasn’t been established.

One reason data is hard to come by is that the nation’s 3,000 to 4,000 crematories are regulated by the states, and state and local health departments are “overwhelmed and are a tad behind keeping up to date,” said Mike Nicodemus, vice president of cremation services at the National Funeral Directors Association.

But the figure is likely in the tens of thousands, because more than 53 percent of deaths in the U.S. led to cremations in 2018, and more than 85,000 people have died in the U.S. from the coronavirus as of May 14, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The cremation numbers are also being driven by the nationwide self-quarantine, which has prevented many families from holding burials.

‘We’re Overloaded’

In the absence of hard data, residents of so-called “frontline communities” that often bear the heaviest pollution burdens say they’re worried about the cumulative impacts of crematory emissions that exacerbate their already-high levels of air pollution from power plants, factories, buses, trucks, and trains.

“We’re already overloaded by other pollution sources, and on top of those facilities, to now add this to the air—to have no one checking and making sure what health impacts this is having on our communities—is something I can’t let go undocumented,” said Kim Gaddy, an environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action of New Jersey.

Gaddy lives within two miles of two crematories, and within 10 miles of two more. About one-third of the 25 crematories in New Jersey are in so-called environmental justice communities, which are typically communities of color afflicted by high rates of pollution, poverty, and unemployment, she said.

Similarly, Lauria Cortez, an organizer with East Yard Community for Environmental Justice, said she and her neighbors in the low-income town of Bell Gardens, Calif., worry about the two nearby crematories that may be exacerbating air pollution from industry, trucks, and ports.

She noted that many residents in the Southern California town are deemed essential workers.

“So not only are they being exposed at work, but they also live in these areas. They get the double-edged sword,” Cortez said.

Industry Says Emissions Are Fine

In response, the cremation industry says their emissions are too low to raise serious environmental concerns.

Kemmis estimated that, pre-coronavirus, the toxic air emissions from all the nation’s crematories were equivalent to one-tenth of one natural gas power plant.

“Crematories are low emitters, in the grand scheme of things,” she said. “We take it seriously, and manufacturers are always working toward efficiency and limiting emissions, but we’re small potatoes.”

As an example of the industry’s evolution, Kemmis said most facilities have adopted chlorine-free body bags to go into the cremation units. In New York, all coronavirus-related cremations involve body bags, she said.

No state requires filtration on their equipment, including scrubbers, according to Kemmis. One crematory in New York state, as well as one in Ontario, have voluntarily installed them to address community concerns, she said.

Nicodemus said toxic emissions only become a concern when the cremation chambers, known as retorts, get too hot from overuse.

Low-Level Enforcement

Even so, many states don’t have the resources to enforce their emissions rules.

“They buy an incinerator that is designed to do a job,” said Ron Gore, head of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s air quality division. “Once you buy the approved model, we are pretty much through with you. These incinerators are like cars. They generally do their job unless they fall into disrepair.”

Some states require annual inspections, such as New York and New Jersey, Kemmis said. In other states, such as California, inspections tend to happen only when there’s a complaint or known problem, “because there’s so many crematories,” she said.

“When we’re talking about cumulative impacts, I think of it as people trying to cross a frozen river,” said Candice Kim, project director at the Moving Forward Network, an environmental justice advocacy group. “Some people get to cross where the ice is frozen thick, and some people are crossing where there’s cracks upon cracks.”

—With assistance from Amena H. Saiyid.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Bernie Kohn at; Chuck McCutcheon at