BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The thought of breathing the air emitted from a crematory isn’t a pleasant one.

Especially during the pandemic, when nationwide the number of deaths and cremations are up, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Neighbors in Birmingham’s Echo Highlands community are fighting that very idea.

“The issue is frightening because you have kids that want to go outside and play,” said Kenneth Johnson.

He lives less than a mile from where the Cornerstone Funeral Services and Cremations facility is being built on Carson Road.

The Alabama Board of Funeral Services explained to CBS 42 that people’s worries often come from a misunderstanding of how cremations work.

“The way that the crematory machines are designed these days they’re so heavily EPA regulated they are designed to burn off any emissions,” said Executive Director Charles Perine.

The Cornerstone Funeral Home has been met with opposition from the Echo Highlands community as a whole. Johnson said the residents voted down the facility at a neighborhood meeting before the issue went before city council.

Even some local officials sided with neighbors.

“I voted against it,” said District One City Councilor Clinton Woods. “I’m a representative of a group of people so it’s very important for me to be in tune with what the overall group wants.”

The funeral home and crematory is being built in District One, and even without the initial support from Councilor Woods, he told CBS 42 it gained overall support from city council. Back in March 2020, the council voted to allow zoning for a crematory at the funeral home on Carson Road.

“We just couldn’t believe they were trying to put a crematorium in our neighborhood,” Johnson explained. “We didn’t want this in our neighborhood.”

He believes the emissions coming from the crematory may be harmful to neighbors’ health.

“Everyone deserves the chance to breathe clean air,” Johnson stated.

While there isn’t a lot of evidence of long-term health impacts from living near a crematory, we do know the facilities emit small amounts of harmful pollutants.

“Emissions from funeral home crematoriums are primarily particulate, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds. Other pollutants like mercury (dental fillings) are possible; however, they would be quite low and less prevalent as dental fillings have moved toward non-mercury based fillings,” a spokesperson from the Jefferson County Department of Health said in an email.

Bernard Buggs, the owner of the future funeral home and crematory, told CBS 42 neighbors shouldn’t worry.

“We will be in compliance with everything with laws and emissions they are concerned with,” he said. “It’s not a big issue.”

When it comes to crematory regulations, the laws are different from other local industry. A spokesperson with the Environmental Protection Agency told CBS 42 there currently isn’t a pollution control standard for crematoria. They said in a full statement:

“EPA has determined that the human body should not be labeled or considered ‘solid waste.’ Therefore, human crematories are not solid waste combustion units, and are not a subcategory of Other Solid Waste Incineration (OSWI) for regulation. Animal crematories are also excluded from this rule. See: Final Rule for Standards of Performance for New Stationary Sources and Emission Guidelines for Existing Sources: Other Solid Waste Incineration Units, issued in a Federal Register notice on December 16, 2005.

Most states have a licensing board that regulates the funeral industry. You may contact the board in your state for information or help. In some states, the State Board of Mortuary Arts or Department of Health & Environment may address this kind of issue. Some cities and towns have ordinances also. General information about environmental and safety issues of cremation is available from the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). 

In short, EPA does not currently have a pollution control standard that applies to crematoria. That said, if the new crematorium’s emissions are large enough to exceed specified thresholds (for example, for particulate matter), it would be required to go through a process to obtain an air permit. The air permitting authority in Birmingham, Alabama is the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) Air and Radiation Protection Division. JCDH may also have additional local requirements that apply to such facilities.”

A spokesperson with JCDH said locally, “The permit limits how much can be cremated in a time period to ensure the incinerator is operating in accordance with the manufacturer’s design. It should be noted the incinerator has a control device called an afterburner that combusts the air at a high temperature to reduce the pollutants noted above. JCDH inspects these facilities and reviews annual reports to ensure proper operation. Typical emissions from incinerators in the area are a couple tons of year or very low when compared to other sources of pollution.”