Published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, researcher Anna Roberts found that men who had high exposure to formaldehyde on their job were three times more likely to die from ALS, also known as Lou Gherig’s disease, a disease in which nerve cells in the brain and spinal chord die slowly. All 493 men were funeral directors.
This rate was not found in women, but Roberts believes that is because more women funeral directors deal with the family and not the embalming process. In addition, only 99 women included in the research met the criteria of working with high exposure to formaldehyde, which may be too few to test the connection.
Past studies have been done that have yielded conclusions without definitive answers. Roberts hoped the large number of survey participants would allow her to find results not given before, and that she did.
Harvard University researchers analyzed data from the US Longitudinal Mortality Survey covering 1.5 million Americans, focusing on the relationship between occupation and health. They found that the embalming process used by many funeral directors includes the toxic chemical formaldehyde in order stop the decomposition of the dead body, necessary for a viewing.
These findings are important to the African-American community, which has historically made this industry their livelihood. In March, MadameNoire covered the robust history of African Americans in the funeral business. We found that in cities such as New York and Detroit, many funeral homes that serve the community have done so for generations upon generations. Offspring often take over these much-needed chapels from their great-great grandparents in order to protect the legacy their ancestors built.
Black funeral processions have had a long history in the African-American experience since the days of slavery and the Jim Crow south. What’s more, outside of history, the funeral industry is a lucrative financial business to be in.
“The funeral business is one of the more stable options for African Americans (annual revenue for the funeral services industry approached $12 million in 2007*), leading some to an interest in mortuary science for its financial incentives. And if there was ever a prime moment to invest in the morbid franchise, it’s now. As Baby Boomers age past retirement and into hospice they’ll begin to grimly stimulate the economy,” wrote Lauryn Stallings.
Will these findings put a hold on the participation of African Americans in the industry, scaring sons and daughters away from taking over the family business? Let’s hope not. But in the meantime, precautions must be taken by the funeral workers who are clearly putting their health at risk to provide their clients with the homegoing they want.