Epidemiologists reviewing occupations and the risk of disease got a surprise: Morticians appear to be at much higher risk of developing a rare but devastating neurological condition called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This rare condition is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the neurons that connect to muscles and make movement possible. Eventually, people with the condition are unable to move or even speak or eat. The disease is almost always fatal.
The investigators at Harvard found that funeral directors were 4.5 times more likely to die of ALS than other men. They suspect that the high levels of formaldehyde used in the embalming process could be responsible. The National Funeral Directors Association takes this risk seriously and urges its members to use proper precautions to protect themselves from excess formaldehyde exposure.
The epidemiological link is not proof that formaldehyde exposure causes ALS, but it is a clue that will warrant further research.