Japan: The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has ordered local bodies to investigate the disposal of people's cremated remains over fears that companies extracting precious metals such as gold and silver from bodies are inappropriately disposing of the remains and contaminating the ground.
Due to the rising price of gold, gold teeth from people's remains can be sold for a high price, and competition has emerged among companies bidding to dispose of people's remains, with tenders going as low as one yen. However, it is suspected that companies are disposing of remains improperly in a bid to cut costs.
In a notice sent to prefectures and large cities in July this year, the ministry instructed local governments to check on a regular basis whether cremated remains were being disposed of properly, and whether any harmful substances were contained in the ashes.
Normally people's ashes are melted or ground up, and stored in depositories or buried on the grounds of crematoriums. But the ashes are not designated as waste, and there are no laws providing concrete measures on how they should be disposed of.
In a survey conducted by the ministry, it emerged that a chemical reaction in stainless steel platforms on which coffins are placed occurred during the cremation process produces hexavalent chromium and other dangerous chemicals. Ashes end up containing these chemicals.
At the same time, competition has emerged among companies bidding to handle the disposal process to obtain gold, silver, platinum and other precious metals contained in bodies. Companies extract these metals during the disposal process and can make a profit even if they do the work for a low bid of only one yen. In fact, in March 2010, six companies in the Shizuoka Prefecture city of Hamamatsu all made bids to carry out disposal work for one yen, and in the end a company from Kobe was chosen by a drawing of lots. It was the eighth year in a row that a company had successfully bid to carry out the work for one yen. The same situation has continued in the city of Shizuoka for four years.
The rising price of gold has played a part in this trend. After the U.S. dollar weakened during the financial crisis in the autumn of 2008, the price of gold -- seen as a stable alternative to the dollar -- increased. The Nagoya Municipal Government said that 59 tons of cremated remains in fiscal 2009 produced 3.9 kilograms of gold, 13.6 kilograms of silver, 0.1 kilograms of platinum, and four kilograms of palladium -- a total of 21.6 kilograms. These precious metals sold for about 17 million yen, an increase from the 10.8 million yen in fiscal 2007 and 14.5 million yen in fiscal 2008.
"Disposal companies are popping up everywhere due to the surging gold market," a Shizuoka Municipal Government representative said.
Some local bodies have clamped down on the situation. In fiscal 2008 the Fukuoka Municipal Government introduced regulations requiring companies to return proceeds from the sale of precious metals on the grounds that the city retained the rights to the remains.
"We feared that if low bids continued to be made, then the remains wouldn't be disposed of properly," a city representative explained.
The Nagoya Municipal Government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government have also introduced similar systems requiring the return of proceeds. Many local governments, however, remain hesitant to do so, saying that using people's remains as a source of income is difficult when considering the feelings of residents. From next fiscal year, the Hamamatsu Municipal Government is considering introducing a system with a fixed minimum bidding price.