Are those nuns still a health hazard?
November 30, 2008 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Is it true that the graves of people who died of certain infectious illnesses remain dangerous centuries later?

I've come across this notion before, then today, reading an item about an historic crypt in Montreal, I find this: "Quebec's Health Department refused to let the tombs be opened and exhumed because some of the sisters died of infectious diseases." Typhoid was rampant here at times, and the Grey Nuns, as hospital sisters, would certainly have been exposed to it. But is their crypt a "plague spot" even to this day?
posted by zadcat to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This is not a scientific answer, but on the show "Medical Investigation" (a one-season fiction drama) the CDC team investigates a small cluster of smallpox cases and discovered that the first patient aquired smallpox after stumbling upon the frozen (in the mountains) corpse of a smallpox victim who died some time ago.

This nit-picking forum post points to other errors but doesn't say that smallpox could not be transmitted this way. But of course I have no idea who wrote that or what their nit-picking qualifications are.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:59 AM on November 30, 2008

"The preserved body of a flu victim buried in Arctic permafrost was exhumed, and they painstakingly extracted the genetic material needed to work out the structure of the H1N1 virus. "
posted by andreap at 12:03 PM on November 30, 2008

andreap- just because you can recover some DNA fragments from the virus doesn't mean it's sufficiently intact to cause infection.
posted by rxrfrx at 12:08 PM on November 30, 2008

This theory is one of the underpinnings of the plot of Connie Willis' Doomsday Book. I just did some rudimentary googling to see if I could get any information on how factual it is, but came up with nothing. However, she's a pretty thorough researcher, so I'd be inclined to believe that it is possible for germs to lie latent for centuries.

Anecdotally, I used to work at a museum that hosted an exhibition of the terracotta soldiers of Emperor Qin. Everyone involved in unpacking the crates caught a miserable flu that lasted for weeks. Was it a contemporary but unfamiliar Chinese bug that got into the packing? Or was it . . . an ancient flu from beyond the grave? We went, of course, with explanation number two.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:16 PM on November 30, 2008 [13 favorites]

Read through the posts on this Snopes topic. It starts out a little differently from what you're talking about, but it gets into the concept. The general consensus seems to be "it's possible, but highly unlikely."
posted by metalheart at 12:55 PM on November 30, 2008

I have run across this a few times. I think the danger is not just in frozen viruses, but in bacteria that can live outside the human body.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 1:10 PM on November 30, 2008

I, too, get my medical/science education from TV shows! :)

So... on ReGenesis they had an episode where a man long-buried in permafrost died of the Spanish Flu, which was later was set rampant upon the general population. (Season 1, Episode 12, which you can watch here.)

One of the neat things, though, about this show is that the Ontario Genomics Institute puts out a fact sheet for each episode of the show, explaining what's fact and fiction of each story. They say:

Can frozen virus be infectious?
Viruses basically comprise a nucleic acid genome encapsulated by a protein coat. Viruses are only infectious when they are intact. Extreme temperatures, such as freezing or boiling, cause irreversible damage to proteins and nucleic acids, which cause viruses to fall apart. An example of this is a hard-boiled egg; eggs are pretty much protein, nucleic acids, and fat. Once an egg is boiled, it loses all the runny, gooey characteristics of being raw; once a virus is exposed to similarly extreme temperatures, especially for long periods of time, it loses its normal characteristics as well.

The permafrost-buried 1918 flu victims were exhumed in the late 1990s; they had been frozen for 80 years. None of the virus was intact, and therefore none of it was infectious.

Can one catch the flu or any virus from being exposed to a dead body?
It depends on the virus, and how long the body has been dead. In the case of the exhumed 1918 flu victims buried in Alaskan permafrost for 80 years, no, it’s not possible that those victims are contagious. In contrast, coming in contact with a dead body - particularly bodily fluids - of a recently deceased victim can pose some risk of infection.
posted by Houstonian at 1:14 PM on November 30, 2008

Anthrax spores can certainly survive long enough to be a concern almost 100 years later.
posted by TedW at 1:18 PM on November 30, 2008

Anecdotally, I used to work at a museum that hosted an exhibition of the terracotta soldiers of Emperor Qin. Everyone involved in unpacking the crates caught a miserable flu that lasted for weeks.

I don't think that was likely to have been the actual influenza virus (not that I'm saying you were using 'flu' in such a narrow, technical sense, mygothlaundry):

Viruses can survive on surfaces - longer on hard, impermeable surfaces than on porous surfaces. The viruses can still be infective for two hours and maybe up to eight hours.

Other viruses can survive longer, but I'm betting on a soil bacterium (the terracottas were buried, after all), or a valley fever like fungus.

Might be interesting to talk to your former colleagues and compare notes about subsequent unusual health events.
posted by jamjam at 1:30 PM on November 30, 2008

Best answer: Smallpox is usually the main worry in crypt exhumations - especially if anyone has been buried in a lead coffin. Archaeologists working on such sites usually wear protective clothing and keep their smallpox inoculations up to date - but even so the risk is low. Anthrax gets a mention too.

Funerary archaeology presents a specific and complex range of hazards. The risk of anyone contracting smallpox is remote but the potential threat to the population at large is such that it must be taken seriously. All staff wore protective clothing at all times.

Where wood coffins were used there may be an increased risk of infection due to occasional good preservation of bodies and other materials. The highest risk category is that of the sealed lead coffins. If any soft tissue remained the hazard presented was treated as potentially severe and suitable protective systems were used. It is not only the human remains themselves that present a risk but also the coffin linings and pads, and the result of the body’s decomposition, a viscous black liquid.

The greatest potential risk presented by this activity is that of contracting anthrax or smallpox. The risk for the archaeologist associated with working with the remains of a recorded anthrax death are thought to be small. A higher risk is gained from the well-preserved horse hair or woollen materials used in the coffin pads, pillows and packing. Minimum precautions are to wear the correct level of protective equipment.

from 'The Archaeological Experience at St Luke's Church, Islington' By Angela Boyle, Ceridwen Boston and Annsofie Witkin
posted by Flitcraft at 1:31 PM on November 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

Depends on the virus or bacterium. Many, like the flu and HIV are extremely fragile and fall apart when exposed to ultraviolet radiation or dessication. Others, like rhinovirus (common cold), rotavirus, adenovirus, and a grasshopper gut virus (whose name I forget, and which can survive boiling). The general rule is that viruses which use only protein as a structural material are more hardy than those which use lipid (fat) envelopes to package themselves. Bacterial spores such as anthrax and bacillus can hang around a very long time, on the order of hundreds of years.

UV and dessication resistance are a decent proxy measure for determining which pathogens will survive for a long time. Even spores underground will be zapped by cosmic rays eventually, or the random fluctuations of thermodynamics will disrupt an essential component that they need to re-emerge from hibernation.
posted by benzenedream at 1:34 PM on November 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

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