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February 22, 2006

The Time of Their Life

According to the latest figures, life spans in the British Columbia are still on the rise.  In 2005, life expectancy for newborns topped 81 years for the first time ever, up a little over two months from 2004:


To me, the most remarkable thing about this chart is that life expectancy growth has been so steady -- the increases have been almost linear -- and is showing no signs of slowing down. Which suggests that we're nowhere near the end of life span increases.  Indeed, as this article points out (abstract only, unless you're willing to pay), lifespans around the world have grown fairly consistently for about 160 years.  Moreover, mortality experts who have predicted over the years that we're approaching an 'ultimate ceiling' for life expectancy have repeatedly been proven wrong.  Which might suggest that lifespans will continue to rise for quite some time.

Of course, if current trends continue life expectancy in the province will approach 100 years by the time that this year's newborns reach 81--as unthinkable now, perhaps, as a lifespan of 81 years might have been at the dawn of the 20th century.  But even if the growth in life expectancy does slow down some, we're still going to see major increases in the number of elderly people over the next few decades, as the baby boomers hit retirement age.  Those demographic shifts are going to force some major rethinking about how we as a society deal with seniors -- to make sure that their lives aren't just long, but also pleasant and affordable.

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The increase in mortality brings with it a host of questions about lifetime exposure to toxins and the impact of bioaccumulation in cemetery developments.

According to research based on NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Survey) and NHATS (National Human Adipose Tissue Survey) data, people 80 and older have the highest average levels of lead in their bones, and PCBs and DDT/DDE in their fat tissue. People who die at average ages of mortality in 2010 have lived through a lifetime of exposure to substances (like DDT) that are now banned.

At the same time, cemetery density is increasing; with lawn crypts (double internment, underground crypt structures), density can be over 3000 bodies per acre. Past studies show migration of arsenic (formerly used as an emblaming fluid) to groundwater. Lead, PCBs, DDT/DDE are typically immobile in soil, so migration to groundwater is unlikely. But should this issue be looked at more closely? Will cemeteries of the future pose environmental problems for future generations?

Posted by: Katey Bean | Feb 25, 2006 8:05:18 PM

Hello Katey. Hope you're on top of things.

What is the contribution of the casket in hampering migration of toxins to the soil?

And your question certainly is a good one, with the risk of endocrine disruptors entering our surface waters as well. Perhaps there is a need for more environmentally-friendly cemetery landscape design!

Posted by: Dan Staley | Feb 26, 2006 1:16:11 PM

Cremation may be a good option for the organics. We still have to wait for dentistry practices to complete the change away from mercury before I could suggest that cremation is the least toxic method of recycling human remains. Ditto for composting.

v/r Claude

Posted by: Claude Williams | Feb 27, 2006 8:32:19 AM