Crematories & “Safe” Chemicals

What does Bill Clinton’s sex life have in common with dead people? I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a little bit about me. I’m like Pavlov’s dog when it comes to the word “safe,” except that instead of drooling when I hear it, I start googling.

That’s because my life was turned upside down after toxic chemicals were used on my airline crew uniform to make it more durable and made me—and thousands of others—ill. Since then, I’ve spent a great deal of time studying chemicals to better understand what happened to me. It’s two years after those uniforms were rolled out, and there are still employees every day just now discovering they’re starting to have reactions to them. Meanwhile, the CEO of American Airlines, Doug Parker, continues to claim the uniforms are “safe” despite proof that the cumulative effects of chemicals matter.

Before the uniform crisis, I wrote a New York Times best-selling memoir about how much I loved my job as a flight attendant. I pay attention to words and how a story gets framed, which is why I’ve picked up on the legal-speak being used to make people think they’re “safe” when that might not be the case. If something sounds odd, like when somebody uses a word they wouldn’t normally use, zero in on that. Ask questions. Focus on what’s been left out of what they’re saying.

Which brings us to Bill Clinton and what I like to call “the technical truth.” After Clinton stated, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” in the Monica Lewinsky case, the world fixated on the words “sexual relations” and what they meant, exactly, in determining whether he’d committed perjury. Clinton’s lawyers persuaded the judge to approve a narrow definition of the phrase, which allowed Clinton to say his denial of having sexual relations was “technically true.” (Still, though, the judge found him in contempt for giving false testimony.)

Words matter, and certain people in positions of power know how to use them in court, on camera, and in the media. And in letters to parents like me, who have children at a school within 1,000 feet of a crematory.

Some Interesting Facts About Crematories

1. There are no federal rules or regulations on emissions from crematories.

The EPA intended to regulate the funeral industry, but then crematories were taken out of the solid-waste incinerators category for some reason and have not been placed in another category to be regulated.

2. Not all states require air permits.

States that do require them often do not require testing for the specific toxins that are released during cremation.

3. Certain agencies do monitor toxins in the air.

Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, PM10, and PM2.5 are some that are mentioned on the website of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency that monitors air pollution in California, where I live. Mercury and other heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and nickel—known carcinogens like dioxins and furans—and even hydrogen chloride have also been found in the air.

4. The data on crematory emissions is old.

EPA standards today are based on data collected in 1999 on the emissions from only one crematory.

5. Mercury is what most people who live near crematories are mainly concerned about.

It is colorless and odorless, and there is no agreement about the safe level of it; some experts and agencies say no level is safe. Mercury can be present in the amalgam dental fillings and medical devices of bodies that are cremated, and it’s most dangerous when it’s heated. Symptoms of mercury poisoning often resemble neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s, Alzheimer’s, and dementia as well as many autoimmune disorders.

6. Baby boomers are the population segment with the greatest number of mercury-containing amalgam fillings.

And the majority of cremations in the near future will be for people in this age group. The release of mercury during cremation can be prevented if amalgam-filled teeth are removed beforehand; but then, the fillings must be handled specially as biohazard waste, so some places don’t bother with it.

7. The rate of cremation is up.

It surpassed the rate of burial in 2015, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

8. Funeral homes are required to remove medical devices like pacemakers, but they don’t always do so.

One review found that nearly half the crematoriums in the U.K. had experienced a pacemaker explosion in their facility. Without regulation, statistics for the U.S. are scarce.

9. Crematories aren’t required to report workplace accidents to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

This is because the funeral industry has an overall low rate of on-the-job injury.

10. The EPA doesn’t regulate crematories under the Clean Air Act.

This is largely thanks to lobbying efforts to declassify crematories as solid-waste incinerators.

The New Crematory in Town

Last week, I received a letter from the South Coast Air Quality Management District about a cemetery seeking a permit to operate a third crematory within 1,000 feet of the local middle school. According to Rule 212, as mentioned in the letter, the district was required to issue the notification, but it was hard to tell what exactly it was saying. It sounded like I was “safe” because it asserted that if I stood in a maximum risk spot for 30 years, my likelihood of developing cancer was only 0.000704 percent.

The word “safe” in reference to cancer piqued the chemical investigator in me.

Skewing data to make people feel “safe” should be illegal.

“There’s no such thing as a safe level of a toxic chemical,” is what my optometrist said when I showed him the list of chemicals found in my airline uniform, which I believe affected my vision. “But good luck proving that,” he said, handing the list back to me.

I posit that the chemical industry is more powerful than the National Rifle Association. Watch the documentary Stink and see Cal Dooley, the CEO and president of the American Chemistry Council, dance around simple yes-or-no questions. Look at the lobbyists and congresspeople who have no problem putting profits over human lives. Look at those who stand up to the nonsense be shot down for incredulous reasons.

I’m Not Against Cremation

Three years ago, I lost a child. There have been six altogether: six pregnancies, six losses. The last one was the hardest because I was five months along. One minute I was in labor, and the next, I was handed a list of funeral homes and crematories. We had him cremated. My gut tells me he was cremated by the very crematory I’m writing about. My son’s tiny urn sits on the bookshelf next to my desk.

Photo courtesy the author

I share this story unblinkingly because I want to be clear that I don’t have a problem with crematories. However, I do have a problem with three crematories operating less than 1,000 feet from my son’s school. I also have a problem with those who use language to confuse people. Everyone deserves to hear information that affects their health in words that are clear and concise. Skewing data to make people feel “safe” should be illegal.

Who Is Told What and Why

Only residents within 1,000 feet of the cemetery seeking the permit and parents of the children who go to the school received that South Coast Air Quality Management District letter. The individuals who work in that area around not just one or two but three crematories—including the school’s teachers and staff—weren’t under an obligation to be notified. I called the Redondo Beach city department of planning and zoning to find out what they knew about the third crematory; they had no idea what I was talking about. That seemed odd, so I asked how far away a crematory must be located from a school. The answer was there is no rule.

To put this in perspective, you can’t smoke within 20 feet of a school, but you can operate three crematories right next to one. Leaf blowers are banned in my city, but having three crematories close by a school is unregulated.

I don’t get it.

In California, it’s a law to warn consumers when they’re exposed to cancer-causing chemicals. If my airline uniform had come with such a warning, I might have connected the dots a little sooner and stopped wearing it when I started having health issues. I had no idea chemicals in clothing could make me sick; if I had, maybe I wouldn’t be on medical leave right now.

Inevitably when I make this point, somebody reminds me that the cemetery was there first. That’s what my neighbors did when a mother posted something about the crematory and her son with asthma on the NextDoorwebsite. In her defense, you can’t tell there are crematories at the cemetery even when you look for them. I have a feeling many people in my community and the greater Los Angeles area don’t realize they’re there either.

The Wording Matters

According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s air quality app, the air in Redondo Beach on the day I received the letter wasn’t good for “sensitive people.” I called the district to ask for a definition of “sensitive people.”

“Students” was the reply. In other words, children.

I have a feeling most people don’t think of children when they read the words “sensitive people” and instead picture sickly individuals with conditions that render them prone to dramatic reactions to otherwise everyday things. I assume most people assume “sensitive people” has nothing to do with them, and so they ignore the message. Meanwhile, they’re probably driving “sensitive people” to school every morning and tucking them into bed at night.

In the same way “sensitive people” isn’t clearly defined, other things in the district’s letter and the rule that required that it send a letter in the first place are fuzzy. Rule 212 says a notification must be issued if there will be an increased health risk, if a health risk exceeds thresholds, or if there will be a significant emissions risk. It’s challenging for anyone to prove anything that’s open to the interpretations of the words “health risk” and “significant emissions” is a true and real problem. But you can prove when information is being hidden, so I kept asking questions.

I asked the South Coast Air Quality Management District if they had data on the number of cremations performed at the cemetery. I was told there was nothing that could be shared. I did find out that it takes an hour to cremate 200 pounds. In theory, then, that’s about an hour of burning for every one or two bodies at each of the three facilities—all of which are less than 1,000 feet from the school.

“Toxic compounds” are mentioned in the letter, but it doesn’t say exactly what they are, so I contacted the senior air quality engineering manager on the crematory project to find out if he could tell me what we might be exposed to. He said he didn’t have the information available, even though I’d called him at work and it seems that it would be his job to know.

I asked about mercury specifically and whether it was true that safety standards today are based on data from a single crematorium in 1999. He said he didn’t have access to that information. I asked if the data regarding safety has ever been updated by the EPA. He didn’t seem to know much about crematory emissions off the top of his head.

I asked if the cancer risk percentage noted in the letter (the 0.000704 percent likelihood of getting cancer if a person stood on the maximum risk spot for 30 years) was for one crematorium or for three of them operating in basically the same place at the same time. He actually was able to confirm the figure was for just one, but then I pointed out that’s confusing; the letter doesn’t explain the cancer risk should be multiplied by three.

I asked about risks of diseases other than cancer, particularly asthma since it is on the rise and airborne chemicals would affect the respiratory system. And I asked whether the letter’s assertion that “the maximum risk from the new crematory is greater than one in a million” meant two in a million or 30 in a million or any of the other numbers greater than one. He said he didn’t have any of that information in front of him.

Taking Action

In an attempt to find someone who did have information in front of them, I called the cemetery and spoke with a very nice crematory operator. He was quick to offer a history lesson that started with how it was opened in 1928—no doubt a reminder that it was there before I was. There were confusing points in this conversation, including uncertainty about whether or not the two units were operated at the same time because of a gas line being capped, but I was told for sure the original paperwork for the third unit was filed in 1996. I pointed out that 22 years seemed like a long time to wait for that third unit.

I asked about their operating hours and was told 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.—pretty much coinciding with a regular school day. My son’s middle school classrooms don’t have air conditioning, and they aren’t well ventilated. The AC is in the process of being installed, but it will take at least two years to get it in every classroom. I emailed the school’s principal to ask if she’d like to start a task force to gather more information about the third crematory. She seemed to be under the impression the permit had already been granted and that there was nothing we could do.

She suggested I reach out to the South Coast Air Quality Management District if I had any questions.

When it comes to toxic chemicals, you ask questions, but you don’t only just ask questions. You make comments—clear ones because, remember, words matter. If you care to comment, please contact the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

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