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Vexing Vapors

A proposed crematory in Spring Hill and the volley of assertions about its potential impact on public health have city leaders scratching their heads, and they’ve decided to hire an expert to help them sort out whether the fumes could harm nearby residents.

The Columbia Daily Herald has been following the issue:

Spring Hill Memorial Park and Funeral Home is requesting the city approve a 3,600-square-foot crematory behind the funeral home on Main Street. The request has elicited fears from surrounding residents — mainly in the Witt Hill subdivision — who fear mercury vapors from dental amalgam fillings will be released into the air when bodies are incinerated. …

(The city attorney) told aldermen that hiring an expert would not cost more than $10,000 and would likely be closer to $5,000. In their vote, aldermen did not set a price limit on how much would be spent on the expert.

Silver-colored dental fillings are about half-mercury. The cremation industry points to studies that it says show the emissions from burning them along with a body are innocuous, but residents from Connecticut to Minnesota remain skeptical.

Around one-third of people in the U.S. are cremated at death, according to Scripps Howard News Service. The rate in Tennessee is 16 percent.

Meanwhile, in Britain, where seven in 10 people are cremated at death, the rules on emissions have been tightened, and the debate has moved on to another environmental challenge. Researchers there are looking at how and whether to recycle the heat captured in the process of cremating the body, the Guardian reported in April:

The onus is on UK crematoria to halve mercury emissions, which come mainly from tooth fillings, by 2012 and eliminate them altogether by 2020. Many will need to install new equipment. Those that have already invested in heat-capture technology usually divert the excess heat to other crematorium buildings.

Some crematoria in Sweden and Denmark have gone further, selling surplus heat for use in houses. Many see this as entirely sensible, avoiding the need for crematoria to have expensive and energy-hungry cooling towers. But others wonder if it breaches an ethical code drawn up the International Cremation Federation.