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Friday, February 16, 2007

Yanking Teeth Before the Final Burn?

After learning that the major air pollutant billowing from crematory smokestacks consists of mercury that taints the dental amalgams/fillings of the deceased, a number of readers have written to ask the logical question: Why not yank riddled teeth from the dead before loading them into the hearth?

Pulling those teeth would, of course, prove an immediate boon to the environment, preventing their cache of mercury from eventually contaminating soil and surface waters. It could also be done cheaply and easily, by, say, a dentist or cremator. The latter, after all, sometimes doubles as a funeral director who, as a matter of course, may himself remove pacemakers from the deceased's chest prior to cremation.

The strategy would, at the very least, cost significantly less than outfitting cremation units with mercury-scrubbing filtering equipment, an option that can run to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Targeting teeth is a sensible enough idea, in fact, that legislators, environmentalists and the cremation industry itself have all considered it. A government agency in Sweden, a country with a 70% cremation rate, proposed the practice back in 2004. On this side of the Atlantic, the state legislature of Maine recently debated a bill that would require crematory operators to remove their deceased's mercury fillings (or install mercury filters).

Like many logical proposals, however, this one held little appeal to human sensibilities. That Maine bill, for example, promptly died because funeral directors said they didn't want to engage in pulling teeth from cadavers, in part because they found the act both "repulsive" for themselves and potentially stressful to grieving family members. Cremators, on the other hand, contended that laws prohibit them from "tampering" with bodies in their care.

All legitimate reasons, certainly, though ones that do nothing to actually solve the very real threat mercury deposition from crematoria poses to the environment -- and, ultimately, to the health of the living.

Which leaves us with mercury filters, a technology, as I wrote earlier, I believe will come to crematory smokestacks. In the meantime, each of us can take a few steps now to ensure a green send-off later. One idea comes from those Maine legislators: include a provision in your will that allows your mercury-laden teeth to be removed prior to cremation. Another is even more obvious: the next time you have a cavity, ask your dentist to pack it with a composite -- mercury free -- filling.

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