Rick Allnutt has closed all but one section of his funeral home on the north end of town.
The chapel is dark and quiet, the reception hall bare. But in the bay out back, two side-by-side ovens rumble as the 1,650-degree heat blasts two corpses into bone and ash.
Allnutt has moved the rest of the business to another location and wants to move his crematory to a site near a cemetery in Larimer County, but he has reached a stalemate with health officials there. They are concerned about what they see as a potential health risk to the living -- mercury being released into the atmosphere from dental fillings of the cremated.
They want him to do something that may be unprecedented in this country: Install a filter on his crematory’s smokestack or extract teeth of the deceased before cremation.
Allnutt refuses to do either, calling the first option too expensive and the second ghoulish.
“I’m not going to be the only one in the world who says I’ll pull teeth from dead bodies,” he said.
Across the United States, the issue is cropping up: Do mercury emissions from dental fillings of corpses incinerated in crematories pose a threat? And if so, how should it be handled?
In Colorado, it’s something that health officials are only now examining, said Mark McMillan, manager of the Department of Public Health and Environment’s mercury program.
“We’re on the cusp of starting to understand it,” he said.
The cremation industry, on the other hand, insists there’s no evidence of danger and calls Allnutt’s situation “a dangerous precedent.”
At issue are amalgam dental fillings. Amalgam -- an alloy of mercury with another metal such as silver, copper or tin -- is commonly used to fill cavities.
When a body is burned, mercury from such fillings vaporizes. Once released into the atmosphere, mercury returns to Earth in rain or snow, ending up in lakes and other bodies of water where it can lead to elevated levels of mercury in fish. In humans, mercury damages the nervous system and can harm childhood development. Power plants, especially those that burn coal, are by far the largest source of preventable mercury releases; Environmental Protection Agency regulations have been adopted to reduce those emissions.
As cremation continues to gain popularity in the United States, the issue may gain more traction.
According to the Cremation Assn. of North America, a 2005 survey found 46% of Americans planned to choose cremation, compared with 31% in 1990. Its use varies widely by region: In Nevada and Hawaii, two-thirds of bodies were cremated in 2005; in a number of Southern states, a tenth were.
The EPA does not regulate emissions from crematories, spokeswoman Margot Perez-Sullivan said. It estimates that about 600 pounds of mercury, less than 1% of all mercury emissions, come from crematories in the U.S. every year. (By contrast, the British government requires new crematories to install filters to cut mercury emissions, according to the British Broadcasting Corp. It estimates that fillings account for 16% of mercury emissions in the United Kingdom, where the cremation rate is greater than 70%.)
In recent years, several states have taken stabs at the issue.
In Minnesota, state Sen. John Marty repeatedly has sought -- and failed -- to pass a law requiring crematory operators to remove teeth or install filters.
He said crematories in Minnesota emit an estimated 68 pounds of mercury every year -- 3% to 5% of mercury emissions in the state. Though coal-fired power plants constitute the greatest problem, Marty said, “we have to go after every source. But it’s not easy politically because people are really squeamish about talking about corpses.”
In 2005 Maine lawmakers considered, but defeated, a similar bill.
Colorado does not regulate crematories’ mercury emissions, which state health officials estimate at about 110 pounds per year.
But the state health department last year began examining the issue. Funded by the EPA, the effort seeks to reduce the amount of mercury emitted through voluntary partnerships with crematory operators, said McMillan, the program’s manager.
So far, collaboration appears unlikely to succeed.
“Their assumptions are all incorrect,” said Mark Matthews, a director for the Cremation Assn. of North America. “There’s a battle over something that doesn’t exist. The data doesn’t add up, and the science isn’t there.”
He said no studies had found higher concentrations of mercury near crematories, and he pointed out that the EPA does not regulate them.
Even if there were a problem, Matthews said, the proposed solution is “unworkable.” For one, he said, families often have viewings before a cremation; removing the teeth probably would mean disfiguring the face. And the idea is upsetting to grieving relatives, he said. “To suggest that we ought to remove the teeth is completely insensitive to the families we serve.”
In Larimer County, the issue came to a head this year when Allnutt applied for a special-use permit to relocate his crematory, which conducts 450 cremations per year.
Neighbors immediately seized on the mercury issue.
“There’s a very real problem,” said Dennis Lynch, a retired forest sciences professor at Colorado State University who read the available research and wrote a paper on his findings. “Crematoriums have gotten a free pass for a long time. We should be asking them to do their civic responsibility and do prevention of some kind.”
Allnutt, who owns a chain of funeral homes in northern Colorado, hired a consultant to estimate the facility’s potential effects. In a worst-case scenario, a model found that mercury levels could rise above recommended short-term exposure limits.
The findings persuaded Doug Ryan, Larimer County’s environmental-health planner, to recommend that county commissioners grant Allnutt’s permit only if he agreed to reduce emissions. The county has the authority to do so, Ryan said, because applicants for special-use permits must show that their facility will be compatible with their surroundings. In this case, Ryan said, compatibility means preventing mercury exposure.
At a planning commission meeting in November, Allnutt made his stand, and the county planning commission, an advisory board, voted against granting him a permit. Allnutt hasn’t decided whether to pursue a hearing before the Board of Commissioners.
The county was unfair, he said, in asking him to do something none of his competitors must do. Installing a smokestack filter at $500,000 would put him at an automatic disadvantage, he said.
But he also said he’ll never pull teeth -- even if it means getting out of the cremation business. “I won’t do that,” Allnutt said. “It’s a moral issue.”