L.A. Suspends Air Quality Rules to Cremate Backlog of Covid-19 Victims

L.A. Suspends Air Quality Rules to Cremate Backlog of Covid-19 Victims
National Guard members assist with processing covid-19 deaths, placing them into temporary storage at the medical examiner-coroner's office in Los Angeles. (Photo: Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner via AP, AP)

Los Angeles County has temporarily suspended air quality rules in order to allow covid-19 victims to be cremated, according to an executive order passed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District over the weekend. The rules will be suspended for 10 days as the region works through a “backlog” of people who have died from the coronavirus pandemic, which is still uncontrolled in many parts of the country.

Los Angeles County has 28 crematoriums, though those facilities are prohibited by law from running at full capacity in order to cut down on air pollution. But with over 2,700 bodies currently sitting in cold storage due to an influx of dead patients from the covid-19 crisis, local authorities have decided that dirtier air is the price Angelenos will have to pay if the backlog is ever going to be cleared.

“The Coroner has determined that the current rate of deaths in Los Angeles County is more than double that of pre-pandemic years, and anticipates that another surge is approaching as a result of the New Year’s holiday, since deaths tend to occur 4-6 weeks after gatherings, and the capacity of the decedent management system, including hospitals, funeral homes, crematoria and the Coroner’s office is being exceeded,” the executive order reads.

Los Angeles has been hit particularly hard by the covid-19 pandemic, with the county recently surpassing 1 million total cases. The county has also reported 13,936 deaths as of Monday night. The U.S. has identified over 24 million cases and at least 398,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker.

Cremating bodies creates air pollution and unleashes trace amounts of hazardous chemicals, such as mercury. The most common source of mercury in the cremation process is dental fillings in deceased Baby Boomers, a generation that was given mercury-laced dental work before alternatives were developed.

As one 2015 study for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found:

…mercury in dental amalgams is known to vaporise upon exposure to the high temperature of cremation (1400 to 2000 °F). It becomes airborne in the emissions at 674 °F and contributes to environmental mercury pollution (Mari & Domingo, 2009). The potential health effects of exposure to mercury released from dental amalgam restorations during cremation have generated public concern and debate.

Vaccines are being rolled out across the U.S., but the process has been plagued with glitches, thanks in large part to a completely hands-off approach by the Trump regime that has left local governments to fend for themselves. And while Los Angeles had hoped to get vaccines to all medical staff before opening up the jabs to other segments of the population, the county announced late Monday that it would now allow anyone 65 years and older to get vaccinated starting Jan. 21.

“Over the past several weeks, the County of Los Angeles has administered the vaccine to frontline healthcare workers, so that they can stay safe while doing the important work of saving lives, and residents and staff in skilled nursing facilities, and long-term care facilities,” Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis said in a statement posted to her website.

“The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been an enormous undertaking, especially during an unprecedented surge where cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to skyrocket,” Solis continued. “However, if we are to ever get out of this dark winter, it is critical that we make headway vaccinating people 65 years of age and older as soon as possible – in line with Governor Gavin Newsom’s recommendations.”

While the end is in sight, there’s still a rough few months ahead as local health authorities continue to make tough choices — in some cases between whether to vaccinate medical workers or the elderly. And in even more disturbing cases, the tough choice between cleaner air and the public health crisis that’s created with having too many dead bodies lying around.