COVID Dead Could 'Poison' the Living Due to Groundwater Pollution

Experts are warning that an increase in buried bodies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic could be having an impact in the environment.

In the U.S. alone, the number of people who have died with COVID-19 exceeded 900,000 this month and the number is increasing all the time.

Around the world, the death toll is over 5.8 million according to the World Health Organization (WHO), though some estimates of excess mortality—a measure comparing all deaths recorded with those expected to occur—have put that figure close to 20 million.

What this means is that burial facilities have faced unprecedented pressure as they attempt to allocate space and resources to store the bodies of those who have passed away.

This presents an environmental problem, since dead bodies and the processes used to bury them respectfully are not always particularly clean. Buried bodies release what is known as cemetery leachate, a liquid composed of organic substances that can be highly toxic, and with associations with cancer.

Metallic elements, medicines used by the person when they were living, preservation chemicals and even pacemakers can all contribute to this leaking substance.

One study from 2019 suggested that coffin materials, too, may leak into the environment and potentially pose health problems. These materials included metals such as aluminum, iron, and copper.

In a study released in October last year, researchers noted that the environmental impact caused by decomposing bodies was "another casualty of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic".

It described how this cemetery leachate can flow into the soil near to burial sites and potentially reach underground water resources.

According to the study, "it is possible to infer that the high number of human losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may also raise the level of contamination in cemetery environments and, consequently, in the surrounding urban environment, especially for medium to large cities."

Alcindo Neckel is an environmental engineer and professor at the School of Architecture and Urbanism at IMED in Brazil. He led a similar study investigating the problem there, which concluded that vertical rather than horizontally-designed cemeteries could allow for the implementation of technologies that adequately treat the liquid pollutants.

Neckel told Popular Science last week that cemeteries need to have disposal systems in place "similar to how wastewater is treated in coastal areas before it is released in the ocean."

"This is not just a public health issue but also an economic problem of growing cities," he added. "At this rate, dead people are slowly poisoning those who are alive."

A stock photo shows a cemetery in the United Kingdom. Burial sites may leak environmentally-harmful substances, studies have concluded. vyasphoto/Getty