Embalming Arsenic Leachate Surveys

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Belying their tranquility, cemeteries harbor several contagions. Nineteenth century embalming methods are especially problematic. Undertakers routinely used an arsenic trioxide solution in large doses to control bacteria and postpone putrefaction. Some recipes recommended up to 12 pounds per corpse. However, it killed many practitioners and was banned by 1910. Arsenic sickens by allosteric inhibition. Essential metabolic enzymes are blocked, and the victim suffers multi-system organ failure. Mortician health improved, but the effects of arsenic pollution in old graveyards have only lately received attention. This poster reports and explores the findings of two teams of junior and senior high school students in Lewiston ID.

Steven Branting

Steven Branting was the director of the award-winning 5th Street Cemetery Necrogeographical Study and its associated schools and projects from 2001-2009.

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applications of the poster information

Cities and towns maintaining wells on or near pioneer cemeteries are advised to have the water tested for arsenic leachates.

See John L. Konefes and Michael K. McGee, “Old Cemeteries, Arsenic & Health Safety,” Cultural Resources Management (National Park Service, IX:10, 1996), 15-18.