Funeral homes in Austin, Texas, regularly dispose of fluids from embalmed corpses down the drain – a practice previously unknown by the city’s municipal water utility, reports the Austin American-Statesman.
The mixture of blood, bodily fluids and embalming liquid then makes its way to wastewater treatment plants, which then release the treated water back into the Colorado River, or Lady Bird Lake, where hundreds of people swim, boat and paddle board every day.
Glenn Bower, executive director of the Texas Funeral Services Commission, said the practice is pretty much standard across the board, and suggested it’s not really that big a deal because only a small amount of formaldehyde is used and the dead body juice gets diluted with water as it goes down the drain.
“When I talk about going down the drain, we have water on the table at all times washing that so it’s constantly being diluted down,” Bower told the Statesman.
“And then when it comes out into my drainage and goes down the drain, it is actually considered to be a negligible amount, so anywhere between one-tenth, or one in 100%, of formaldehyde is going into the drain,” Bower explained.
Another funeral home director confirmed embalmers dispose of solid medical waste in biohazard containers, and liquid waste is indeed dumped down the drain.
The macabre practice evidently came as a surprise to Austin Water officials, who initially told the Statesman funeral homes should apply for permits to dispose of the medical waste:
Austin Water officials when asked how they account for funeral homes discharging medical waste down the drain during the treatment of wastewater said they were unaware local mortuaries were practicing such methods.
“Austin Water Special Services has not received a permit application from any funeral homes,” read a statement from Austin Water to the Statesman. “This ordinance is in place to protect against pollutants that could damage or obstruct the wastewater collection system or interfere with the wastewater treatment process.”
The Statesman reveals they pressed Austin Water for months to elaborate on how the practice could constitute an interference of the treatment process, however, “officials would not expand on their statements.”
Texas Funeral Service Commission Executive Director said the process isn’t dangerous to the public or the environment because workers use water to dilute medical waste.
But Austin Water disagreed. https://t.co/wSnYMPB7zW
— Austin Statesman (@statesman) September 13, 2021
Instead, the City responded in a follow-up email claiming all funeral homes were in compliance with local ordinances, and that “wastewater treatment plants can process and treat funeral home medical waste to high standards as outlined by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.”
The Statesman noted mortuaries operate under a “general industrial users” permit, similar to restaurants and car washes, but that hospitals use a stricter “major industrial users” permit; however, a question about how hospitals dispose of blood from surgeries and autopsies went unanswered by several area hospitals.
Bower added the commission has never been made aware of the necessity of a permit and challenged city water officials to show him the ordinance stating this is the case.
“If somebody at the sewer system or the water company said no we can’t do that, I’d like to see where they have that proof because that means I have over 1,600 funeral homes in violation,” Bower claimed.
The exact amount of embalming fluid that goes down the drain during the process is unknown, according to Bower, but he insisted it’s “not as much as people might think.”
“I can honestly say we measure the volume going in, but we don’t measure the volume coming out,” Bower admitted. “But, that does go down the drain.”
He also argued the stuff that goes down the drain at people’s homes is much more concerning.
“When I first learned how to embalm and I went to school and I started teaching I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going down the drain,’ but the things at people’s residences that go down the drain is far worse, much more toxic,” Bower continued.
The report did not mention how widespread the practice could be.
It’s also unclear if any formaldehyde remains in fully treated water after it goes through the tortuous wastewater treatment process.
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