UP academic appeals to municipalities to monitor groundwater or surface water close to cemeteries

Posted on June 06, 2020

University of Pretoria (UP) academic Professor Matthys Dippenaar has appealed to municipalities to monitor groundwater and/or surface water that are close to sites where cemeteries are located, in light of the more than 50 000 COVID-19-related deaths that are being forecast in South Africa over the next few months.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its scourge across the world, South African municipalities have been asked to prepare for the possibility of increased fatalities which might exceed current burial and crematoria facilities,” says Prof Dippenaar, an associate professor in Hydrogeology and Engineering Geology at UP’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.

“Apart from ensuring there are enough facilities, an equally important consideration is to ensure that death and burial occur safely given the highly infectious nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.” Because little is known about SARS-CoV-2, clarity is being sought around the risk to environmental and human health, due to the impending mass burial of COVID-19 victims.

If municipalities continue to “site and monitor cemeteries correctly, we are okay” says Prof Dippenaar. “If we continue to correctly license and monitor our groundwater use, we are okay. The problem comes when we bypass the strict regulatory tools available, as the regulations help us to be diligent and forward-thinking.”

Prof Dippenaar’s research focus is on the vadose zone (the subsurface between land surface and the groundwater table where both air and water occupy the pore space), and how this affects and is affected by development. He was also the project leader on a Water Research Commission project to compile guidelines for the environmental risk assessment of cemeteries, including their geotechnical and hydrogeological aspects, that resulted in a document entitled ‘Death and Burial in the Time of COVID-19: Environmental and Health Risks’.

Groundwater is water-occupying openings underground from where water can readily move and be abstracted. Above the groundwater table, water and air coexist in the openings, affecting the ease with which water can be extracted or mobilised. “We therefore distinguish between the upper vadose zone of water-air mixtures, and the deeper phreatic zone of only groundwater,” Prof Dippenaar explains. “We rely on it for supply because groundwater is much more abundant on land than any other freshwater, including rivers and dams. And because of its abundance related to other sources of freshwater, polluting groundwater will indefinitely result in subsequent pollution of other water sources.”

Burying a body is fairly safe as the body decomposes to water, some salts, gases and calcium phosphates. “None of these are intrinsically bad, especially given the low load of burials,” Prof Dippenaar explains. “The bigger concern is of the jewellery, cosmetics, embalming agents and other accessory materials such as coffin hinges, which could contaminate the groundwater.

“Disease and embalming fluids are likely the most short-lived in the environment compared with metals and some strange emerging contaminants. If contaminated, the consequence depends on the combination of the contaminants. Cemeteries behave as landfills – anything can find its way in there, implying that you don’t always know which contaminants to look for, especially with respect to pathogens. Even though the likelihood of adverse consequence (such as disease) is fairly low, the impact of that risk is high.”

There is also the survival rate of pathogens such as viruses and bacteria to consider. “Most die off outside of a living host, meaning the disease dies off as well. Some, however, may survive in soil or groundwater, thereby forming secondary sources of transmission of disease.” Burial above the water table reduces the likelihood of the survival of pathogens by retarding the flow rate of moisture carrying the contaminants while giving time for them to die off in an oxygen-enriched environment.

“To be able to excavate to the required depths, and with suitable distance from water, cemeteries require fairly good land that can almost always be developed more feasibly with respect to economy,” says Prof Dippenaar. “Somewhere, we need to be okay with the lower economic benefit of using good land for burial, because it is at an environmental and societal gain.” 

Groundwater (or any water) contamination results in higher treatment costs and higher risk to health. “The mere fact that contamination can be treated does not make it okay, because ecosystems also depend on water. Affecting one part of the water cycle, either in flow or quality, will affect the rest of the water cycle.”

South Africa has good guidelines on burials that were updated recently through the Water Research Commission, and the country is at the forefront of international research on the environmental and social impacts of cemeteries. “Provided that the siting regulations and guidelines are followed, an environmental impact assessment is conducted and a water use license is applied for, we have no cause for concern.” 

- Author Primarashni Gower

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