Several embalmers from funeral directors in the Austin area say it is common practice to pour human blood down the drain from corpses, a procedure Austin Water officials admit they did not know about happened and the treatment of sewage entering the Colorado River.
Funeral homes are an integral part of the local business community, with about three dozen locations within the Austin city limits. Responding to thousands of deaths in central Texas each year, these morgues guide grieving family members through decisions from embalming to burial.
Death-related topics are often considered taboo, which is why Glenn Bower, executive director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, said it was about 20 years ago since he was asked how funeral directors in Texas dispose of human fluids.
In short, Bower explained that when a family chooses to embalm a loved one, all of the blood and body fluids mixed with the embalming fluid that comes from the remains – called drainage by embalmers – go into the common sink.
“I can honestly say we measure the volume that comes in, but we don’t measure the volume that comes out,” said Bower. “But that’s going down the drain.”
Of the solution that was put into the remains, “about half of that solution will be poured or taken down the drain,” he said.
Disposing of the medical waste and embalming fluid is not dangerous to the public or the environment, Bower said, as workers dilute the medical waste with water.
“When I talk about going down the drain, we have water on the table all the time to wash it off so it gets diluted all the time,” he said.
Austin Water disagreed, however.
How the disposal of medical waste in funeral homes affects wastewater treatment
When asked how funeral directors dump medical waste down the drain during wastewater treatment, Austin Water officials said they were unaware that local morgues practice such methods.
In a statement to the American Statesman, Austin Water made it very clear that permits must be obtained to drain blood or embalming fluid into local sewer systems. The permits are said to be part of an ordinance issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“Austin Water Special Services has not received a permit application from any funeral home,” said Austin Water. “This ordinance serves to protect against pollutants that could damage or clog the sewage collection system or interfere with wastewater treatment.”
However, Michelle Haney, director of Mission Funeral Home, said earlier this year that local embalmers, including herself, dump fluids from corpses during the embalming process, but that solid medical waste goes to a biohazard container and is collected by a disposal company is picked up .
“Yes, we use the liquid sewer system and we use biohazard for everything else,” Haney said. “That includes your chemical bottles, and that includes bedding and clothing.”
Eric Neuhaus, owner of Green Cremation Texas, said it was well known in the death industry that Austin embalmers dispose of human fluids this way. Neuhaus is one of the few in Austin that offers a greener approach to funeral services by eliminating embalming altogether.
“Let’s talk about what normally flows into the sewer system,” said Neuhaus. “I mean, body waste, right? Feces and urine go into the sewer system. I think that blood is comparatively much cleaner. ”
Bower agreed with Neuhaus, saying this method of disposing of human fluid from corpses is the same for more than 1,600 funeral directors in Texas.
“If someone from the sewers or the waterworks says we can’t do this, I’d like to see where they have that evidence because that means I’m hurting over 1,600 funeral directors,” Bower said.
Austin Water was asked repeatedly over the course of a few months how the drainage of blood and embalming fluid from corpses into sewers would affect the sewage treatment process. However, the officials did not want to expand their statements.
Instead, Austin Water returned in a follow-up email stating, “Sewage treatment plants can process and treat medical waste from funeral homes to high standards as described by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.”
Officials for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which enacts Austin Water’s ordinance, were also asked to clarify the potential impacts on human health and environmental safety of discharging medical waste into sewer systems without proper permits.
However, the agency referred all questions back to Austin Water and the Texas Funeral Service Commission.
The Colorado River, where the purified wastewater is released after cleaning, is where Austinites paddle, boat, and swim in areas like Lady Bird Lake.
The Funeral Home Permit is a general commercial use permit that is also issued to other businesses such as restaurants and car washes. It is not the same as the stricter hospital permit known as the Large Industrial User Permit.
We Are Blood, which provides donated blood and platelets to more than 40 hospitals in central Texas, said their unusable blood will be picked up by a bio-waste disposal company and autoclaved in accordance with federal regulations.
The statesman also asked several large hospitals how to dispose of blood from operations and autopsies, but received no response.
Why do funeral homes embalm?
Preserving human remains through embalming is only a common practice in the United States and Canada, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
The purpose of embalming, aside from scientific reasons or long-distance shipping, is to delay decomposition and make the body appear more lifelike to families who want a public visit, say officials from the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
Embalming is rarely required by law, so those who do not want an open coffin or who want to quickly bury a family member before decomposition is felt need not do so.
The embalming process costs an average of $ 3,000 or more for the chemical injections, so some in the Austin area are looking for cheaper, more environmentally friendly options like those offered at some green burial sites in Travis County.
Bower said embalming is done on a case-by-case basis, but when workers embalm, they start with around 1.5-3% formaldehyde in the liquid. After the solution gets into the body, it gets further diluted, according to Bower.
“And then when it gets into my drain and goes down the drain, it’s actually considered negligible, so between a tenth or one in 100% of the formaldehyde goes down the drain,” he said.
Bower said embalmers don’t measure the amount of blood that leaks from the body during the embalming process and can’t give an estimate, but said it’s not as much as people think.
“When I first learned how to embalm and I went to school and started teaching, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is going down the drain,’ but the things in people’s homes that are going down the drain , are far worse poisonous, “continued Bower.