Several Austin-area funeral home embalmers say it is common practice to pour human blood from corpses into sewers, a procedure that Austin Water officials admit were unaware of and which could compromise the treatment of wastewater entering the Colorado River.
Funeral homes are an integral part of the local business community, with approximately three dozen locations within the city limits of Austin. These mortuaries respond to thousands of deaths in central Texas each year, guiding grieving family members through decisions, from embalming to burial.
Death issues are often viewed as taboo, which may be why Glenn Bower, executive director of the Texas Board of Funeral Services, said it had been about 20 years since he had been asked how living rooms Texas funeral homes had human fluids.
In short, Bower explained that if a family chooses to embalm a loved one, all the blood and bodily fluids mixed with the embalming fluid that comes out of the leftovers – called embalmers drainage – goes down to the common sink.
“I can honestly say that we measure the volume in, but we don’t measure the volume out,” Bower said. “But, it falls apart.”
Of the solution put in the leftovers, “about half of this give or take will come out into the drain,” he said.
Disposing of medical waste and embalming fluid is not dangerous to the public or the environment, Bower said, as workers dilute medical waste with water.
“When I talk about going to the sewer, we have water on the table all the time to wash it off, so it’s constantly diluted,” he said.
Austin Water, however, disagreed.
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Austin Water officials, when asked how they count for funeral homes dumping medical waste down the drain during sewage treatment, said they were unaware that local mortuaries practiced such methods .
In a statement to the American-Statesman, Austin Water was very clear that permits must be obtained to drain blood or embalming fluid into local sanitation systems. The permits are part of an ordinance introduced by the Texas Environmental Quality Commission, the statement said.
“Austin Water Special Services has not received a license application from any funeral home,” said Austin Water. “This ordinance is in place to protect against pollutants that could damage or clog the wastewater collection system or interfere with the wastewater treatment process.”
However, Michelle Haney, director of Mission Funeral Home, said earlier this year that local embalmers, including herself, send corpses fluids during the embalming process down the sewer, but solid medical waste goes in a biohazard container and are picked up by a disposal company. .
“Yes, we use the sewage system for liquids and we use biohazards for everything else,” Haney said. “It would include your chemical bottles, it would include all the linens involved, all the clothes.”
Eric Neuhaus, owner of Green Cremation Texas, said it was common knowledge among death industry players that Austin embalmers remove human fluids in this manner. Neuhaus is one of the few in Austin to offer a more eco-friendly approach to funeral services by refusing embalming altogether.
“Let’s talk about what normally happens in the sewers,” Neuhaus said. “I mean, bodily waste, right?” The feces and urine go down the drain. I think the blood is comparatively much cleaner. ”
Bower agreed with Neuhaus, saying this method of removing human fluids from corpses is the same for more than 1,600 funeral homes located in Texas.
“If someone at the sewage system or the water company says no, we can’t do that, I’d like to see where they have that proof, because that means over 1,600 funeral homes are in violation.” , Bower said.
Over the course of a few months, Austin Water was repeatedly asked how blood and embalming fluid from corpses going down the sewer system would interfere with the sewage treatment process. However, officials did not want to expand on their statements.
Instead, Austin Water backed off in a follow-up email stating that “wastewater treatment plants can treat and treat medical waste from funeral homes to high standards, as reported by the Texas Commission. on the quality of the environment ”.
Officials from the Texas Environmental Quality Commission, who put in place the order that Austin Water follows, were also asked to explain the potential effect that the release of medical waste into health care systems. remediation without proper permits could have on human health and environmental safety.
The agency, however, referred all questions to Austin Water and the Texas Funeral Service Commission.
The Colorado River, where treated sewage is discharged after purification, is where Austinites stand up paddleboarding, boating, and swimming in areas like Lady Bird Lake.
The license granted to funeral homes is a general license for industrial users, which is also granted to other businesses such as restaurants and car washes. This is not the same as the more stringent permits given to hospitals, known as permits for large industrial users.
We Are Blood, which provides donated blood and platelets to more than 40 central Texas hospitals, said their unusable blood is collected by a biowaste disposal company and, according to federal regulations, is autoclaved. .
The statesman also asked several large hospitals how they dispose of blood from surgeries and autopsies, but received no response.
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The process of preserving human remains through embalming is common practice only in the United States and Canada, according to information provided by the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
The purpose of embalming, aside from scientific reasons or long-distance transport, is to delay decomposition and make the body more realistic for families wanting a public visit, officials from the Funeral Consumers Alliance said.
Embalming is rarely required by law, so those who do not want an open casket or wish to bury a family member quickly before decay is noticeable, do not have to.
The embalming process costs an average of an additional $ 3,000 or more for chemical injections, leaving some in the Austin area looking for cheaper and greener options like those offered at a handful of 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% to 3% formaldehyde in the liquid. Once the solution entered the body, Bower said it was even more diluted.
“And then when it comes out in my drainage and goes down the drain, it’s actually considered a negligible amount, so anywhere between a tenth, or one in 100%, of formaldehyde goes down the drain,” a- he declared. .
Bower said embalmers don’t measure how much blood comes out of the body during the embalming process and can’t give an estimate, but said it’s not as much as people might think.
“When I first learned how to embalm and went to school and started teaching, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is falling apart’, but things in homes where people fall into the water is much worse, much more toxic, ”Bower continued.