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Embalming chemicals are a variety of preservatives, sanitising and disinfectant agents and additives used in modern embalming to temporarily prevent decomposition and restore a natural appearance for viewing a body after death. A mixture of these chemicals is known as embalming fluid and is used to preserve deceased (dead) individuals, sometimes only until the funeral, other times indefinitely.
Typically embalming fluid contains a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol, and other solvents. The formaldehyde content generally ranges from 5 to 29 percent and the ethanol content may range from 9 to 56 percent.
Simply explained, embalming fluid acts to fix (denature) cellular proteins, meaning that they cannot act as a nutrient source for bacteria; embalming fluid also kills the bacteria themselves. Formaldehyde fixes tissue or cells by irreversibly connecting a primary amine group in a protein molecule with a nearby nitrogen in a protein or DNA molecule through a -CH2- linkage called a Schiff base. The end result also creates the simulation, via color changes, of the appearance of blood flowing under the skin.
Modern embalming is not done with a single fixative. Instead, various chemicals are used to create a mixture, called an arterial solution, which is generated specifically for the needs of each case. For example, a body needing to be repatriated overseas needs a higher index (percentage of diluted preservative chemical) than one simply for viewing (known in the United States and Canada as a funeral visitation) at a funeral home before cremation.
Embalming fluid is injected into the arteries of the deceased during embalming. Many other bodily fluids may be drained or aspirated and replaced with the fluid as well. The process of embalming is designed to slow decomposition of the body so it looks natural.
It is important to distinguish between an arterial chemical (or fluid), which is generally taken to be the product in its original composition, and an arterial solution, which is a diluted mixture of chemicals and made to order for each body. Non-preservative chemicals in an arterial solution are generally called "accessory chemicals" or co/pre-injectants, depending on their time of utilization.
Potential ingredients in an arterial solution include:
Prior to the advent of the modern range of embalming chemicals a variety of alternative additives have been used by embalmers, including epsom salts for edemic cases and milk in cases of jaundice, but these are of limited effectiveness.
During the American Civil War, the Union Army, wanting to transport slain soldiers from the battle fields back home for burial, consulted with Dr. Thomas Holmes who developed a technique that involved the draining of a corpse’s blood and embalming it with a fluid made with arsenic for preservation.
Embalming chemicals are generally produced by specialist manufacturers, two of the oldest and biggest being The Dodge Company and The Champion Company. Other companies include; Egyptian, now, U.S. Chemical and Pierce Chemical Company, Bondol Chemical Company, and Hydrol Chemical Company. But there are many smaller and regional producers such as Lear Barber in Sheffield, Genelyn, Frigid Fluid Co., and Trinity Fluids, LLC to name but a few. Additionally some funeral homes generate their own embalming fluids, although this practice has declined in recent decades as commercially available products have become of better quality and more readily available.
Following the EU Biocides Legislation some pressure was bought to reduce the use of formaldehyde. The chemical is not banned in Europe, however there is a need to assess the use of the chemical. IARC Classes Formaldehyde as a Class 1 Carcinogen. There are alternatives to formaldehyde and phenol-based fluids, but these are technically not preservatives but rather sanitising agents and are not widely accepted, however the need to consider the hazards from using the chemical may reduce the use of formaldehyde.