You read about alkaline hydrolysis in In Touch back in 2010 and several times since, as previous legislative attempts failed to legalize it. Third time is the charm it seems. AB 967, allowing alkaline hydrolysis as an option for disposition of human remains, has finally passed both houses of the California legislature. After the governor’s signature it will go into effect July 1, 2020. This bill would allow and regulate the disposition of human remains by a water process called alkaline hydrolysis, and also known as “water cremation,” “aquamation,” “bio-cremation,” and “resomation."
Alkaline hydrolysis is a process whereby a high pH (alkaline) solution is used to dissolve the soft parts of the body, leaving behind only bones, which will be crushed and returned to the family in the same way as cremation ashes. The liquid is sent to a water treatment plant or to a facility where it can be used to generate energy.
The main value of this piece of legislation is that it provides an additional option for dealing with human remains—one that should be less expensive than burial and less environmentally damaging than cremation, while costing consumers about the same as cremation, which is already much less expensive than burial.
There is much to be done before alkaline hydrolysis (hereinafter “AH”) will actually be available in California. The lengthy lead time before the law goes into effect on July 1, 2020 will be necessary to allow entities the time to acquire the machines or “systems” that perform the AH process and to get the plumbing, permits, licenses, and training necessary to be able to operate the machines and the new businesses. The lead time will also be useful to educate people about the new option.
Few members of the public have ever heard of alkaline hydrolysis. (Think how well-informed you are as a regular reader of InTouch!) Most people give little thought to what happens to their bodies when they are done with them. Even fewer consider the environmental implications of their choices on that subject, or, if they do, they think that cremation is a good environmental choice.
One would expect funeral service providers to be well-informed on new directions in their field, but in a cursory survey of about a dozen local funeral homes and cremation providers, it was discovered that some funeral homes knew little or nothing of the new law, though most would happily work with any entity that provided AH if their clients requested it. One major cremation provider knew all about AH but was actively hostile to the idea, citing the fact that the AH process has a significantly longer cycle time than cremation, a factor that would influence his throughput, and no doubt his bottom line.
While true that the low temperature (and lower-priced) AH machine will take over 14 hours to process one body, there is a higher-temperature version of the AH machine that will do the job in 4-6 hours, which is not much more than the time necessary to complete a cremation. “High temperature” alkaline hydrolysis is only 300 degrees Fahrenheit, versus 1700 degrees for a cremation. And interestingly, the cost of this higher temperature AH machine is similar to the cost of a cremation machine.
The environmental impacts of conventional burial and of cremation are concerns that grow right along with the growing population. It is for environmental reasons that the BA-FCA has supported legalizing alkaline hydrolysis. Conventional burial represents extensive use of metals, woods, concrete, chemicals and land. Cremation uses fossil fuels (usually natural gas) to turn a body into air pollution. Direct air pollution from cremation includes carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, dioxin, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, and, most notably, mercury from dental amalgams. When mercury is burned it is distributed into the air as tiny particles. Particulate mercury when inhaled causes neurological damage, especially in children. Alkaline hydrolysis as a water process vents nothing to the air. Dental amalgams and other metals in the body do not dissolve but remain intact and can be reclaimed and recycled at the end of the process. And because AH machines use electricity instead of natural gas, the electricity can be sourced from renewables or carbon free sources, making the process even more environmentally benign.
Alkaline hydrolysis machines do use a fair amount of water, about 285 gallons or four bathtubs-worth per cycle. This includes the water used to clean the machine after each use. This could be a concern in water-stressed areas. It should be noted that the water-based effluent of the AH process is quite sterile, meaning nothing is alive in there. The strong alkalinity breaks open cells and causes them to dump their contents, and then further breaks down the proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids into amino acids, sugars, soaps, and electrolytes. This sterilizing effect is why AH has long been used for disposing of animal carcasses, and is why in the old days, bodies in paupers’ graves were covered with lye.
Among the regulatory checks specified in the law is that every five years, a test must be done on the AH effluent to determine that pathogens are being adequately destroyed. The irony here is that the flushing of household toilets is not regulated, and yet each flush of the brown stuff puts literally trillions of pathogens down your unregulated drain.
The available land for burials is diminishing, and the cost of burial remains high, generally well over $10,000. Because cremation is less expensive, the demand for cremation is increasing. The funeral industry will always urge you to spend as much as possible, but is generally amenable to providing you with whatever method you choose for dealing with your remains (probably excluding whole body donation in which the industry is effectively by-passed). So if there is both demand for and providers of AH, funeral directors will happily arrange it for you.
Educating the public and creating demand will be crucial for helping AH to become widely available in California. Besides the visceral ick factor, there is another perception issue that has been raised by those “toilet-to-tap” folks in Orange county, the ones who have perfected the process of turning sewage into drinking water but were made to pump the drinkable result into the ground so that it would be “ground water” when retrieved, nevermind that it has to be re-treated when pumped back up. They are concerned that the idea of human remains in the water will further deter people from accepting their process. Of course, animal remains are already in the water by this very process, and, as pointed out above, the effluent is exceptionally sterile—vastly more so than the “remains” you normally flush.
Perception is a difficult thing to change. But even if you do not wish to exercise AH as an option for yourself, or if you strenuously object to “flushing grandma down the drain,” you can appreciate that AH is a rational environmental option in our very populated and polluted world, and should be legal and available for people to choose.