Mom was right: we should have done a better job brushing our teeth. For us Baby Boomers at least, better brushing would have meant fewer silver fillings. And for us Baby Boomers who plan on heading to the hearth when the time comes, that would have meant that much less mercury polluting the environment.
Mercury is a prime ingredient of those dental/silver amalgams. When a body with silver fillings is cremated, its cache of mercury doesn't disappear in that final blaze. The hearth's searing 1,600 degree temps transform it into still-potent vapor, which then escapes up the smokestack and rides the prevailing winds. At some point, the mercury falls to earth, on ground and/or water, where it's consumed by wildlife, including fish. When we, in turn, eat that tainted fish, we ingest a bit of its mercury makeup.
Mercury, as scientists and consumer health advocates continue to document, is highly hazardous to human health. Exposure to the metal has been linked to a host of ills, from infertility to developmental delays and brain damage, particularly in the young.
It's hard to say just how much cremation contributes to mercury pollution. The EPA, which conducted tests with the cremation industry in the late 1990s, contends that U.S. crematories collectively emit a mere 230 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere every year. The non-profit advocacy coalition New England Zero Mercury Campaign, however, argues that the release is significantly higher, accounting for some 2.5 tons.
Either way, the amount of mercury pollution from crematoria pales next to the 100 tons emitted every year by our coal burning power plants. That said, less mercury fouling the environment is clearly better than more, particularly given the raft of recent reports showing the greater extent of mercury pollution than previously believed and the minute amounts needed to actually harm human health.
The government of Great Britain, 70% of whose population is cremated, is concerned enough about the issue that it recently required the country's cremation operators to outfit their units with filtering equipment sufficient to cut mercury emissions in half by the year 2012.
No such rules appear on the horizon here. Still, word about the mercury issue will gain traction and select cremators will, I believe -- in part, per a phone call with a U.S. cremator just this week -- begin voluntarily installing filters in order to appeal to consumers looking to "green up" their final exits via the hearth.
The Green Burial Council will make it easy to find them. The non-profit organization is looking to certify and then list on its site those crematories across the country that boast mercury filters.