For funeral director Trevor Charbonneau, the decision to purchase a machine that turns a deceased body into liquid and bone didn’t come easy.
Charbonneau was committed to offering clients at Newcastle Funeral Home what he believes is a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional flame cremation, even though the process, called alkaline hydrolysis, requires a vessel that costs $150,000 (US) — a significant purchase.
But months after Charbonneau received his crematorium license in 2017 allowing him to use this machine, the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, which oversees the province’s funeral industry, inspected his establishment, issued numerous violations — none of which had to do with the actual machine — and then suspended his licence. The BAO also issued a notice that his license would be revoked.
The BAO, overseen by registrar and CEO Carey Smith, said it believes the effluent from the kind of alkaline hydrolysis machine that Charbonneau purchased poses a public health risk.
The BAO “must ensure that the public is protected from the potential for harm from newer technologies, such as low-temperature alkaline hydrolysis, until they are adequately tested and proven safe,” David Brazeau, the authority’s communications manager, said in an email to the Star.
Multiple requests by the Star to speak with Smith directly were denied.
In other jurisdictions, alkaline hydrolysis has garnered controversy, but most of the debate in the United States has been about the morality of flushing people down the drain and not about the science, said one expert.
Charbonneau appealed his suspension at a license tribunal and defended himself twice more in court. The bereavement authority lost each time.
The court ruled the BAO had no evidence to show that the machine posed a public health risk.
Charbonneau is in operation once again, but the win has had a domino effect, spurring a potential change in legislation that he believes signals the fight with the BAO isn’t over.
The proposed amendment to the funeral act states that any emerging techniques to dispose of human remains, such as low-temperature alkaline hydrolysis, can’t be licensed until the health and safety of the technology has been confirmed through research.
But who will do the research remains to be seen, because the BAO said that’s not its role. Charbonneau believes that he could spell the end for his low-temp machine.
The funeral director also believes the proposed legislation could close the door on any prospective court challenges should a funeral director disagree with the BAO.
Meanwhile, while his is the only low-temp machine in use in the province to dispose of human remains, similar machines are gaining in popularity for pet cremation.
What is alkaline hydrolysis?
Alkaline hydrolysis, also known in the funeral industry as aquamation or resomation, is not a new process.
It was patented in the US in 1888 to break down animal bones to produce fertilizer. A century later it made its way into university research labs to dispose of animal and human tissue used in research.
The funeral industry here and in the US adopted it 11 years ago.
The remains of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who campaigned against apartheid, were disposed of in this way, at his request, when he died late last year.
In America the process is widely marketed as a gentler way to dispose of a body than flame cremation, as well as more environmentally friendly because the process doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, said Philip Olson, an associate professor in the department of science and technology in society at Virginia Tech.
More than 20 states have authorized its use and some of the largest funeral home chains in the country have jumped on board, putting a premium price tag on alkaline hydrolysis, similar to that of an environmentally friendly car, Olson said.
Charbonneau, however, charges less for alkaline hydrolysis than for flame cremation because it can be done on site and doesn’t require a casket for the body.
In simple terms, the process uses a combination of heat, lye and water to break down remains. Bodily tissues are turned into a liquid that goes down the drain just like other forms of wastewater. Bones, meanwhile, are pulverized and returned to the family.
There are two types of machines: high heat in a pressurized vessel that reaches temperatures of 150 C, and low heat, which operates up to 96 C but for a longer time.
The bereavement authority believes that the low-heat machines, which are much less expensive than their counterparts, do not destroy prions.
Prions are a type of protein found in humans that, in extremely rare cases, can fold over improperly and damage healthy brain cells, causing a fatal condition called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
The BAO commissioned a review of scientific literature on low-temp alkaline hydrolysis from Public Health Ontario, which it says found no evidence the process destroys prions.
“Scientific studies show that high-temperature alkaline hydrolysis eliminates infectious agents, such as prions,” said Brazeau.
During the court case, Charbonneau paid for his own validation study of the low-heat machine, employing expert Gerald Denys, an adjunct senior research professor in pathology and laboratory medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
Denys determined the low-heat machine destroyed prions. The research was reviewed by two US experts, according to court documents, who found flaws with the methodology but agreed with the findings. The study was later published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The BAO, however, maintains that the low-temp process is unsafe.
The Star asked Joel Watts, an associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto and a Canada Research Chair in protein misfolding disorders, for his opinion on the low-temp process. Watts is not an expert in alkaline hydrolysis, but he works with prions in his lab.
He said the use of lye, a chemical caustic enough to melt flesh from bone, together with the heat creates conditions that would “completely inactivate all of the infectious material that’s there.”
“In science you can never say never,” said Watts, “but everything that I have researched myself and/or read would suggest that it’s very unlikely that this poses any kind of risk.”
Low-temp machines from Bio-Response, the company from which Charbonneau purchased his, have been in operation for a number of years in Quebec and Saskatchewan, as well as in many parts of the US where the process has been approved. The company has also sold low-temperature machines for pet cremation in Toronto, Mississauga, London and Stratford.
In talks to introduce the technology to other provinces, Bio-Response has also done its own validation studies.
Licensing in Ontario
Ontario’s full history with alkaline hydrolysis is a bit unclear — and a bit sordid.
Two machines were in use by 2016, the year the bereavement authority took over from the former Board of Funeral Services and the Cemeteries Regulation Unit. The licenses were handed out a year earlier, according to the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario.
Charbonneau’s funeral home is now one of four facilities in the province licensed to perform the process, and he is the only person with a low-heat machine.
But the number of machines up and running at any given time has ebbed and flowed.
Smith himself gave a bit of a history lesson when he met with Charbonneau at a coffee shop in 2019 and offered to help him swap out his low-temp machine for a high-temp one. Charbonneau later rejected an offer in writing of $200,000 from the BAO.
Charbonneau secretly recorded the meeting and provided a copy to the Star.
“I inherited most of this problem from the ministry before the BOA,” Smith said on the recording. “They went ahead, without even knowing what AH was, and somebody said, ‘Hey, I got a new technology and it’s like water cremation.’ And they go, ‘OK.’ And they gave them a license.”
Two of the early operators were eventually shut down for violations that had nothing to do with the technology, but with how the units were being operated.
One funeral home owner “blew up his water system by trying to put too many people through,” Smith told Charbonneau in the 2019 meeting. “So, he’s just pumping them through, without cooling the water down, without neutralizing it.
“So, the wastewater system got all frothy and foamy and there’s the Ministry of the Environment, wondering… what’s going on here? And then in the meantime we shut him down because of a whole bunch of other things.”
When Charbonneau applied for his license in 2017, he said he sent literature to the bereavement authority for approval that indicated it was a low-temp machine. And he invited BAO staff to see the machine in use, an invitation which was declined, according to court documents.
About four months after Charbonneau received his license, Smith got an email — revealed later during the court case — from someone in the industry who wrote “further to our recent discussion on the bogus practices of those with resomation units, you need to see this ad in the Bowmanville, Newcastle area. This guy is not indicating anywhere that he operates a resomation unit is using the word cremation. BS!
“If I were to make an assumption, you will be on this one like ‘stink on a monkey’… LOL.”
The sender’s name had been redacted. Charbonneau is the only operator of alkaline hydrolysis in that area. His facility was inspected a few months later, as were two other facilities.
Smith didn’t respond to a request to comment on the email.
The BAO has since implemented more robust regulations regarding alkaline hydrolysis, including the respectful treatment of remains, facility design requirements and safety and emergency protocols.
The regulations also stipulate that alkaline hydrolysis cannot be marketed as an advantage over other forms of disposal. It also cannot be referred to as cremation, water cremation or bio-cremation, and providers cannot make claims that it has an environmental advantage.
Charbonneau has now purchased a second machine for his Newcastle location, this time a high-temperature model.
The new machine, however, can be operated at a low-temperature setting, which he continues to use. “If we have the capacity to use less electricity and less resources for a cycle, then why wouldn’t we?” said Charbonneau.
However, Smith continues to assert in his blog, on the BAO websitethat low-temperature alkaline hydrolysis isn’t safe.
So, Charbonneau is in a kind of purgatory, with a license from the BAO but without its sanction. It remains unclear how the funeral home director will find a resolution.
The provincial Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, which oversees the BAO, said in an email that it is working with public health experts and the bereavement authority to determine how to research emerging technologies for disposing of human remains, a promise the ministry made in the auditor general’s value-for-money audit from 2020.
According to the audit, the authority spent nearly $400,000 on legal fees in its court battle with Charbonneau and another $77,900 on consultants hired to do research.
Charbonneau, meanwhile, is concerned about how the BAO’s stance will affect his clients, many of whom continue to choose alkaline hydrolysis over flame cremation.
“We have a lot of families choosing this process for their loved one. And if they’re ever to read this from the regulator of the industry — that the method of disposition that they chose for their loved one isn’t safe — I just don’t think that’s right.”
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