The risks of formaldehyde use for funeral directors

Thousands of funeral directors across Britain and Ireland are at increased risk of falling fatally ill due to the toxic effects of formaldehyde used to embalm bodies, according to a new study.

The chemical, a known carcinogen, is linked to cases of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as motor neurone disease (MND), in research published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.  ALS is often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the famous baseball player who was diagnosed with it.

Funeral directors are three times more likely to die from the incurable brain disease, which leads to paralysis and is fatal, say researchers. Formaldehyde interferes with proteins in the brain, increases “mitochondrial membrane permeability and causes oxidative damage,” they state.

The team of experts, from Harvard Medical School, US Census Bureau, Harvard School of Public Health, and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, analysed data from the US National Longitudinal Mortality Study.

They found that men in jobs with “high probability of exposure versus no formaldehyde exposure had almost three times greater rate of ALS mortality…All men with high-probability, high-intensity exposure were funeral directors.” Researchers did not find an increased risk in women, partly because of a small sample of less than 100 in such jobs and also because female undertakers are less likely to embalm bodies.

The European Commission has restricted the use of formaldehyde but backed away from banning it, as they face opposition from a number of countries including Ireland, arguing that it would interfere with traditional funeral rites. Irish funeral directors argued that formaldehyde allowed them to provide time for viewing of the corpse and traditional wakes.

Research has linked formaldehyde to the symptoms associated with Motor Neurone Disease, including muscle weakness, paralysis and eventually respiratory failure and death. However a spokesperson for Irish funeral directors has stated that formaldehyde (which delays decomposition) doesn’t pose a risk to funeral home staff if used properly with proper ventilation. However, funeral directors are also exposed to other chemicals used in the embalming process, as well as to bacteria.

The embalming process has become more necessary in recent years as due to family and friends of the diseased perhaps living far away or having to travel from abroad.

The Irish Association of Funeral Directors requires its funeral home members to abide by a code of professional standards which includes strict guidelines on the safe use and storage of all chemicals used in the care of bodies, including formaldehyde.

“These guidelines include the use of appropriate protective clothing and equipment, ensuring all HSE (Health and Safety Executive) and health and safety standards are met and a strict adherence to manufacturers’ instructions.

“As a result of the sensible approach of our members in abiding by these various requirements the IAFD has not, to date, been made aware of any health-related issues amongst our member firms as a result of proximity to embalming fluid.”