Fearing toxic emissions, many resist plans for new crematoriums
RICHMOND, Calif. -- 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 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 US atmosphere 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."
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.
The soaring popularity of cremation is driving demand for more crematoriums. There are currently some 1,800 in the United States, 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.
"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."