The deadly air pollution cost of crematoria’

Data obtained by Air Quality News through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed that various crematoriums across the UK are producing particulate matter far higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended guidelines.

600,000 people die in the UK every single year and around 75% of these funerals are processed by cremation. 

Cremations are often cheaper than traditional burials and for many years have been viewed as an environmentally friendly option because no land is disturbed. 

However, the cremation process requires temperatures of around 900 degrees Celsius. To generate this extreme heat, crematoriums tend to burn natural gas which then releases high quantities of greenhouse gases; one cremation produces an estimated 250kg of carbon dioxide. 

During the cremation process, a coffin, which is usually made from wood is burned, this burning process leads to high levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

This is a major health concern with these pollutants linked to respiratory problems, heart disease and brain cancer. 

By law, 50% of crematoriums in the UK must be abated. If a cremator is abated this means it has better filtration so there are less air pollutants. However, installing abatement equipment can cost upwards of £1m, meaning that as many as 150 crematoriums across the UK are still pumping out toxic pollutants every single day.

Leeds City Council provided us with their annual emission reports for three cremators at Lawnswood crematorium between 2016 and 2019.

In these reports, a 60-minute average emission reading was taken once a year. This figure is meant to be representative of the average emissions from each cremation, of which there are up to 12 a day. 

The data reveals that the Lawnswood cremators were emitting particulate matter higher than the legal limit for every single test in this three-year period. 

Date60-minute average particulate matter emissions 
29/11/16 – Cremator 1, Test 129
Cremator 1, Test 240
Cremator 1, Test 379
28/11/16, Cremator 2, Test 137
Cremator 2, Test 252
21/02/18, Cremator 1, Test 185
Cremator 1, Test 2127
Cremator 1, Test 3161
19/02/18, Cremator 2, Test 196
Cremator 2, Test 272
Cremator 2, Test 391
20/02/18, Cremator 3, Test 1113
Cremator 3, Test 2108
Cremator 3, Test 3161
28/01/19, Cremator 1, Test 1 25
Cremator 1, Test 261
Cremator 1, Test 351
30/01/19, Cremator 3, Test 1128
Cremator 3, Test 2140

On February 21st, 2018, the particulate matter reading was 161µgm3. 

This level of pollution is considered to be ‘unhealthy,’ meaning that everyone in the area may begin to experience health effects.

A spokesperson from Leeds City Council commented: ‘Spikes and differences in emissions can occur for different reasons and does not mean that the cremator is in breach.’ 

Air Quality News has questioned this because as stated earlier, the data provided is a ’60-minute average’ it is not a spike, and the data is consistently high for every single reading provided. 

The council also said: ‘All cremators are regularly monitored, and any issues are picked up and rectified as part of the 12-monthly service.’

However, the data clearly shows that the emissions are in fact increasing. For example, in November 2016, the emission reading for cremator 2 was 37µgm3, in February 2019, the emission reading had almost tripled to 96µgm3.

We have raised these questions with Leeds City Council, but at the time of writing they are yet to respond. 

At Bushbury crematorium in Wolverhampton a similar picture has been found. 

Wolverhampton City Council provided us with monthly readings showing the 60-minute mean emission value for particulate matter between 2017 to 2019.

 201720182019
January20.825.531.8
February13289.220.5
March10314.843.8
April98.42515.8
May84.138.821.9
June27.46.718.5
July24.738.920.1
August26.614.32.4
September30.515.50
October36.718.12
November 18.6111.711.9
December34.436.54.8

Not only do these pollutants pose a serious health risk to the people working at the crematorium, but Bushbury crematorium is also located near a major housing estate, meaningthat hundreds of people are at risk every single day when a cremation takes place. 

A spokesperson from Wolverhampton council commented on these reports: ‘As a council, we take our statutory duty to improve air quality very seriously. 

‘We are looking at upgrading the cremator apparatus to ensure we control emissions in accordance with legal requirements and continue to make Wolverhampton a cleaner city.’ 

In a similar pattern the same thing can be seen at Yardley crematorium in Birmingham. 

Birmingham City Council provided us with the average 60-minute particulate matter readings once a year from 2014 – 2018.

DateTotal particulate matter, mass emissions
March 201499.3
March 2015109
March 2016125
February 201797.7
February 201871.4

Particulate matter is known to travel far from its source, and this crematorium is located less than half a mile from a local nursery, therefore, these emissions pose a serious health risk tothe children nearby. 

At the time of writing, Birmingham City Council has been unable to provide a comment on this issue. 

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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