Some residents of a quiet south Minneapolis neighborhood are raising concerns about a nearby crematorium, demanding more details about whether smoke and vapors from an unassuming stack atop the facility are a local health risk.

Neighbors of the Cremation Society of Minnesota, which has operated as a funeral home at that location since 1955, convened a meeting with the company and city officials this week to obtain more details about just what is being emitted. The crematory’s location in a residential area is unique in Minneapolis, where city ordinance now requires all others to be in cemeteries.

“Our main contention is that we don’t feel that the cremation belongs in [the] Kingfield [neighborhood],” said Josh Guin, who lives across the alley with his wife and two children. “We don’t feel safe around it.”

More people are choosing cremation as a cheaper, simpler alternative to burial, making emissions of mercury and other toxins an increasing concern of neighborhood groups and regulators. About half of all deaths in the state now result in cremation, compared with 16 percent in 1990, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Kevin Waterston, co-owner of the Cremation Society of Minnesota and president of the Cremation Association of North America, notes that he lived in the building after the crematory was installed and now works next door every day without fear. The Cremation Society is the largest provider of cremations in the state, with other locations in Edina, Brooklyn Park and Duluth. They started cremating at the Minneapolis location in the 1980s.

Waterston is working with researchers to study emissions, specifically mercury in dental fillings that vaporizes at high temperatures. “I’m probably more on top of this than any operator in the state, to be honest with you,” Waterston said.

Dental fillings hold mercury

The crematory is located in the former Waterston family home — now partly a chapel — which sits an alley away from back yards dotted with sandboxes, hammocks and children’s toys.

The digitally controlled, state-of-the-art machine uses natural gas to reduce bodies to ashes in about two hours at temperatures surpassing 1,500 degrees. On a recent evening, a translucent vapor could be seen floating from the stack accompanied by a steady, quiet whirring sound. Residents say that vapor is often preceded by a brief plume of smoke.

The tight-knit block also has complaints about that sound, as well as occasional odors some believe are burning hair and flesh — the company says this is not possible. Dale Mackereth, a longtime resident of the block, notices when the machine shuts off late at night.

“All of a sudden I just have this relief, because that sound has been in the background and I’ve been hearing it subconsciously, if not consciously,” he said.

It is known that crematories emit mercury because of dental fillings that vaporize at high temperatures. But state regulators view it as a global pollutant, rather than a local one, since it is more likely absorbed into the atmosphere where it can be dispersed to waterways and fish. University of Minnesota researchers are currently developing a study to analyze the prevalence of mercury fillings as the state tries to reduce its overall mercury emissions.

“[Crematories] are coming to the fore in our assessments of pollution sources because it’s a growth industry,” said Anne Jackson, an air quality engineer with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “And we are finishing up our programs for dealing with a lot of larger sources,” such as the energy sector.

Waterston believes crematories get unfairly blamed for a problem created in the dental industry. “We’re the ones trying to fix the problem,” Waterston said. “But we’re not the ones creating the [fillings].”

City is investigating

The crematorium issue had been talked about among neighbors near the Cremation Society, but solidified during a neighborhood cookout this April to welcome some new homeowners. Guests witnessed a commotion in the alley as about 40 people participating in a Hindu funeral procession gathered to watch the cremation of their loved one, screaming and grieving loudly next to the barbecue. “It was very upsetting,” Guin said.

The residents insisted at the meeting, held Tuesday at a nearby rec center, that the Cremation Society is otherwise a great neighbor — painting over graffiti, clearing up snow and otherwise maintaining their property.

“As long as we get the proof that it’s no concern, that there’s nothing coming out of there that’s harmful, then we’re fine,” said Luis Pires. A sheet distributed at the meeting lists mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and dioxins among the substances residents are concerned about.

The city previously conducted air sampling of an exhaust attached to a nearby engraving building, but haven’t monitored the crematory stack itself. Dan Huff, who oversees environmental management for the city, said they will be investigating what air monitoring would be appropriate for the crematory and how much it would cost — heavy metal testing is more expensive than other tests. They will also conduct additional sound monitoring.

It’s not the first time a crematory has met public resistance in Minnesota. In 2011, residents successfully fought the opening of a crematory in Jordan with similar concerns about smells and heavy metals.