A study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry suggests that funeral directors may be at increased risk for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) due to the formaldehyde used in embalming fluid.

Researchers used the U.S. National Longitudinal Mortality Study (NLMS) to study the link between mortality from ALS and occupational exposure to formaldehyde. The participants’ exposure to formaldehyde at work was estimated by criteria established at the National Cancer Institute. The intensity and probability of exposure to formaldehyde for each job and industry sector was then calculated.

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Men that held jobs with a high probability of formaldehyde exposure were about three times as likely to die of ALS than those who had not been exposed to formaldehyde at all. Women with a high probability of exposure, however, did not have a higher risk of ALS. This may have been because too few study participants held jobs that exposed them to high levels of formaldehyde. For men with high intensity and probability of exposure (n=493), they were more than four times as likely to die from ALS compared to those with no exposure; these men were all funeral directors. Almost all the women were funeral directors as well, none of whom died from ALS. Researchers note that the gender discrepancy may be due to the fact that female funeral directors are less involved with the embalming process and deal more with the bereaved relatives, which would limit their exposure to formaldehyde.

No formal conclusions can be drawn regarding causality since this was an observational study, the study authors added.

For more information visit BMJ.com.