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Councils admit testing graveyards for chemicals

Three councils across the north have admitted carrying out tests for toxic chemicals in graveyards
John Monaghan

THREE councils have carried out tests to establish the presence of toxic chemicals in graveyards, with at least one taking subsequent action to deal with the issue, The Irish News can reveal.

Concerns had been raised that toxins such as formaldehyde and arsenic were seeping out of burial spaces.

Used to embalm the dead, formaldehyde, a colourless carcinogenic substance, seeps into the ground as the body decomposes and can take up to 10 years to dissipate.

In response to a Freedom of Information request submitted to the 11 new super councils, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council said that the former Down District Council previously employed a third party contractor to test for chemicals.

Although the council declined to disclose the date, location or exact nature of the find, citing legal restrictions, it added that Down District Council "was satisfied any risks were addressed appropriately."

It stressed that no toxic chemicals have been discovered at any cemetery in the area previously covered by Newry and Mourne District Council.

Derry City Council, meanwhile, confirmed it carried out tests on three occasions in 2008 at Ballyoan Cemetery, but no toxic chemicals were found.

Antrim and Newtownabbey District Council said that ‘monitoring' was being carried out at the Barnett extension of Carnmoney Cemetery, but added that council had not yet received the results.

Of the remaining seven councils in the north, all said they had neither tested for toxic chemicals nor discovered any in their cemeteries.

There were conflicting accounts of what measures councils take in order to ensure no toxic chemicals enter the water course and soil in graveyards.

Four councils – Causeway Coast and Glens, Mid-Ulster, Fermanagh and Omagh, and Ards and North Down - said they had no procedures in place.

Belfast City Council, Lisburn and Castlereagh, Newry, Mourne and Down, and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon said they all follow guidelines from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, which includes instructions on the distance burial plots should be from water sources.

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon District Council and Antrim and Newtownabbey District Council both said they carry out formal "risk assessments" of any proposed new cemetery sites and extension.

Derry and Strabane District Council said a "comprehensive drainage system" had been installed at a number of cemeteries, while regular audits were also carried out by the Health and Safety Executive.

One company, Greenacre Innovations, recently met with Environment Minister Mark H Durkan to urge him to support methods which would neutralise the effects of formaldehyde inside the coffin.

Other countries around the world have urged undertakers to stop using formaledhyde when embalming bodies.

One council, Mid and East Antrim, did not respond to the FOI request.

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