From which source is your drinking water? Well, if you live off urban zones, chances are high you drink from under-earth, through a borehole.
It’s a bit of a forbidden subject, but just what happens when you’re six feet under? At depth, a solid wooden coffin will take longer to degrade than the wicker or cardboard ‘green’ alternatives, now becoming popular in the US.
But typically, 10 years on your body will have been reduced to a skeleton. And in the process you’ll have leached chemicals including ammonia, formaldehyde (from embalming) chloride and metals. Approximately half the chemicals will leach out in the first year and if groundwater is near to the surface that can cause serious contamination.
As easily as water seeping through rocks, the embalmed body’s toxic secretion escapes its host and eventually leaches into the environment, tainting surrounding soil and groundwaters.
Cemeteries bear the chemical legacy of their embalmed dead, and well after their graves have been closed. In older cemeteries, arsenic may be the longest-enduring contaminant. As highly toxic and powerful preservative, arsenic was a mainstay of early embalming solutions especially among the ancient Egyptians.
Nearly a quarter of the water samples that a one John Konefes of the Northern Iowa University drew from hand-pump wells on the grounds of some dozen of villages scattered around the States tested positive for arsenic. Two samples contained arsenic at levels above the then-proposed drinking water standards.
He says his limited, 1990 research only suggests the potential for arsenic contamination of older cemeteries, but believes it’s strong enough to warrant further study. The toxic element “will not bio-remediate, it will not break down,” he says. “Exposed to water seeping through the grave, some of the arsenic in an embalmed body will leach out and it has to go somewhere.”
His work exposes that nearby groundwater, which may supply individual families or communities with their drinking water, is a logical place for arsenic to run. With grave’s co-existing with boreholes in every Ugandan rural community, and hamlet, safety measures should be taken as soon as possible.
Groundwater protection guidance: what is Uganda’s NEMA waiting for?
The UK’s Environment Agency has recognised the risk and its Groundwater Protection guidance, addresses the grizzly task of making sure that when our loved ones go under, that they’re not causing more problems than the probate. The guidance states:
■ Graveyards – both new and (ideally) existing must not have groundwater closer than 2.8m below ground level.
■ Graves can’t be built within areas most sensitive for groundwater. These, for the technical minded, are within a Source Protection Zone or 250m from a water supply well used for drinking water, whichever is the greatest distance. One study reveals the presence of microbiological indicators (Total coliform and fecal coli-form) in the sampled groundwaters obtained from boreholes near merely a single grave.
1. Understand which graveyards have shallow groundwater and/or are in source protection zones. Monitoring groundwater levels over seasons is highly recommended.
2. If groundwater is shallow, then model the risk. The EA’s guidance ‘Assessing the Groundwater Pollution Potential of Cemetery Developments’ is a useful reference.
3. Engineering solutions to prevent contamination are a third option. This option is really a last resort, however, and likely to be expensive when compared to the taxes and incomes from burials.
Striking Possibility: An innovative greener alternative
Cremation could be a greener alternative, but this emits large amounts of mercury. So time for some innovation… resomation or Alkali hydrolysis – using a mixture of water, potassium hydroxide and steam heat to dissolve the body.
The writer is a climate tracker for #Call4climate and a student of Development Economics at Makerere University