Cemetery hydrogeology is the study of how the actions of cemeteries interact, or otherwise affect the hydrogeologic cycle of an ecosystem. A hydrogeologic system is a cycle in which water moves through the ground soil, and re-interacts with the ecosystem. This most affects humans when it comes to drinking water, and the contamination of a hydrogeologic cycle from which we draw water. A recent discovery has shown that aquifers near cemeteries contain a surprising amount of harmful contaminants. These contaminants come from corpses that have been embalmed and buried, which, after a period of decay and deterioration, have "leaked" some of their harmful preservatives into the groundwater. Some chemicals used in embalming include: formaldehyde (a preservative), methyl alcohol (a preservative), germicides (to kill bacteria), dyes (to color skin), humectants (to retain skin moisture), anticoagulants (to stop blood from clotting), surfactants (allows flow of fluid), water conditioners (to purify water used in embalming), and perfumes (to mask stench of decay).
In addition to harmful chemicals seeping into groundwater, there is also the possibility of viruses or diseases that were present within the corpse to find their way into sources of drinking water. Another significant source of unwanted contaminants in drinking water come from the coffins that corpses are buried in. The metal handles of a coffin, given enough time, will start to break up, and leak into groundwater. Some of these metals can prove harmful in large enough quantities. Also, the increasing amount of plastics used in coffin liners is proving hazardous to drinking sources.
There are currently a number of studies being conducted to find ways to eliminate these problems, the largest one is headed by Boyd B. Dent from the University of Technology Sydney, in Australia. Based on his investigation and tests, there have been new ways suggested that can provide for safer drinking water:
- Do not bury the dead - Cremating (burning the dead), uses few chemicals and leaves less waste than normal burial. However, this is slightly offset by the air pollution resulting from the burning corpse.
- Carefully monitor where you get your drinking water - If the sites for possible drinking water sources are tested before they are used as sources, then the possibility of exposure to contamination can be greatly reduced.
- Use more environmentally friendly coffin materials - If you must bury people, then use alternate materials for the coffin. Wood, and metal are not the only materials out there. In fact, there are now coffins being made that use only recycled cardboard and plastic, and are therefore less harmful to the environment.
So, think about this next time you take a drink: where did this water come from? Or: Are there tiny pieces of grandma or grandpa floating around in the glass of water I'm drinking?