Funeral directors could be at a greater risk of dying from ALS

Risks in the service of the dead.
Risks in the service of the dead.
Image: Reuters/Jacky Naegelen
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To most of us, managing the departure of the dying is an odd business but it might also be a deadly one.

Researchers from Harvard University have found that funeral directors may be at a higher risk of suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a deadly neurodegenerative disease.

Andrea Roberts and colleagues filtered data from the US Longitudinal Mortality Survey, of 1.5 million Americans, which has been running for more than three decades. Among the many questions asked in the survey, Roberts was most interested in looking at occupation and health data.

Specifically, she was interested in finding out whether exposure to the toxic chemical formaldehyde increases risk of ALS. Formaldehyde causes cell damage that is similar to that implicated in the mechanism of causing ALS. However, previous studies on the connection between formaldehyde and risk of ALS have produced mixed results. Roberts was hoping that using such a large dataset would help her answer the question once and for all.

The results of Roberts’ analysis, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, show that the men in those occupations which had a high probability of high exposure to formaldehyde were three times more likely to die from ALS. Surprisingly, all the 493 men shortlisted were funeral directors.

The same correlation wasn’t observed in women, but Roberts thinks that’s because only 99 women met their criteria of working in a profession that has a high probability of high exposure to formaldehyde and that may be too few to test the connection. Also, in the US, female funeral directors are more likely than male funeral directors to be involved in interacting with bereaved family and less likely to be involved in the embalming process where formaldehyde is used.

The embalming process involves the use of formaldehyde which renders skin proteins useless to bacteria. This helps stop the decomposition of the dead body and restore a more natural appearance for viewing.

The study strengthens the connection between formaldehyde and increased risk of ALS. But Roberts warns that despite a large dataset used, the numbers remain too small to draw a definitive connection. The total number of deaths caused by ALS were only two among the 493 funeral directors, which given the large sample size of the survey is representative of all funeral directors in the US.

Given the regular use of formaldehyde in embalming chemicals, Roberts hope that more direct studies will be done to understand the link better.