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Are Human Cremation Ashes Toxic?

With concerns about the land that burials can use up, cremation is increasingly popular in the United States, and 40 percent of Americans now choose this option. However, modern families are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact human cremated remains may have. When deciding what to do with human cremation ashes, some people may wonder if the remains are toxic. Find out here.

How the cremation process works

The cremation process used these days has advanced considerably from more traditional methods. Crematories now use large furnaces, which normally generate temperatures between 1400 and 1800 degrees. The crematory places human remains in a casket or container, where the intense heat and flame then burns the remains and the container to ash.

The crematory will remove any pacemakers or medical devices from the body before cremation. The cremation process will destroy personal mementos, such as watches and jewelry, so most families also remove these items. At the end of the process, the ash remains run through a processor to create the powder-like texture that loved ones receive to dispose of in a private, personal manner.

Human cremation ash composition

The ashes received are almost entirely fragments of human bone. The combustion process destroys almost any organic, carbon-based matter, and any burnt bodily fluids will evaporate during the process. The extreme heat also means that these ashes contain hardly any traces of the casket in which the body lay.

The human skeleton largely consists of carbonates and calcium phosphates. The bones rely on the strength of these materials while you are alive, and the intense heat doesn't destroy these parts of the body. Trace elements can also often appear in your bones. Throughout your life, your body naturally absorbs metals and other elements, which also survive the combustion process.

The chemical composition of human ashes can vary according to various factors. For example, the chemical content of the drinking water you consume can leave traces of copper, lead and cadmium in your remains. 

The risks human ashes present

Human ashes are not toxic. The trace elements found in these remains exist in tiny quantities, and all these materials appear naturally in the world's environment anyway. That aside, you still need to take care when disposing of these ashes.

Concentrated quantities of human ash remains can burn grass and foliage, rather like an excess of fertilizing chemicals. As such, if you decide to scatter or bury the remains in soil, you should aim to do so over a suitably large area, to avoid concentration in a particular spot. Similarly, you should avoid scattering ashes in places where people bathe or fish. You should also avoid scattering these remains within sensitive or fragile ecosystems and nature reserves.

Staying on the right side of the law

Federal and state laws mean that you cannot scatter ashes where you like. In some cases, these laws protect the environmental impact people cause when disposing of the remains. While the ashes themselves aren't toxic, people still cause environmental damage by disposing of urns, wreaths and other non-biodegradable items.

You must check all relevant rules and regulations if you plan to scatter ashes:

  • At sea. You need to make sure your craft is at least three nautical miles from shore before you tip ashes overboard.
  • On a beach. Some states prohibit this activity, while others insist you wade out to sea a certain distance.
  • In a national park. You will often need a permit or other permission to do this.
  • On private land. You need the landowner's permission.

You can often scatter ashes from an aircraft, but some restrictions will apply. For example, some state laws insist the plane flies at a certain altitude before you do this.

As cremation becomes more popular, some people may want to understand if human cremation ashes are toxic. Talk to your local crematory for information and advice about what you can do with these remains.

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