Homeowners living near Civil War-era cemeteries should be aware that toxins may be seeping out of old graves, thereby potentially contaminating drinking water and causing serious health problems.
During that era, the individuals who fought and died in the war were from all across the United States. Families who wished to bury their loved ones would pay morticians to ship the bodies home.
Unfortunately, during that time period, ice was the best option for preserving a body. However, it did not work very well.
Jana Olivier, an environmental scientist and professor-emeritus at the University of South Africa noted that, “We’re talking about the 1800s, so how do you freeze [the bodies] and keep them frozen if they take weeks to transport?”
As a result of this problem, the embalming industry in the United States began to boom. Many people tried to learn the practice of embalming and would often follow the military from battleground to battleground.
Mike Mathews, a mortuary scientist at the University of Minnesota said that, “Embalmers flocked to battlefields to embalm whoever could afford it and send them home.”
While embalming fluid is very effective at preserving bodies, it is very toxic. In fact, the best embalming fluid of the times often contained arsenic.
According to the 5th Street Cemetery Necro-geological Study, one popular embalming formula “contained about four ounces of arsenious acid per gallon of water, and up to 12 pounds of non-degradable arsenic was sometimes used per body.”
The reason arsenic was such an effective embalming fluid ingredient is because it destroyed the bacteria responsible for making the bodies smell. But, the poisonous properties of arsenic did not degrade in the bodies. Rather, when bodies embalmed with arsenic-containing fluid were buried in the ground, the arsenic leaked out into the surrounding soil.
Benjamin Bostick, a geochemist at Columbia University noted that, “A Civil War-era cemetery filled with plenty of graves - things seldom stay where you want them to. As the body is becoming soil, the arsenic is being added to the soil.” At that point, rainwater and flooding can transport arsenic into water reserves.
This means that these old cemeteries present a problem for today’s nearby homeowners. A geological study conducted near an old cemetery in Iowa City in 2002 found arsenic levels in the water at three times the allowed federal limit.
Bostick pointed out that, “When you have this big mass of arsenic, there’s enough to affect literally millions of liters of water at least a little bit.”
Joseph Graziano, an environmental health scientist at Columbia University observes that arsenic is so dangerous to humans and animals because it is a carcinogen commonly associated with lung, skin, liver and bladder cancers.
Graziano added that, “Sadly, much of the population today isn’t aware of the hazard that arsenic poses. Any homeowner should be testing their well water frequently. We need to be vigilant about hazards from drinking water.”