Bodies are stored in basement until dissection
There are dead bodies on campus at CU.
Each semester four or five cadavers are shipped to the Boulder campus from the State Anatomical Board at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver for dissection in the school’s Anatomy 3415 course. Various laboratories in Ramaley Biology preserve the cadavers in stainless steel humidors.
The human body’s natural decomposition process is stalled by an embalming fluid composed of formaldehyde, phenol, methanol and water.
But it still stinks something fierce: the kind of pungent odor that stings the nostrils.
Sarah White, a senior anthropology major, is currently enrolled in Anatomy 3415.
“Yeah, Ramaley smells like dead bodies,” White said.
The humidors are hooked up to ventilation ducts that pump the smell out of a vent on the north side of Ramaley.
“Every time I go through that walkway under Ramaley, the smell gives me an instant headache,” said Nick Hess, a sophomore open-option major.
To quote local sandwich peddler Jimmy Johns: “Free Smells.” But dead bodies aren’t exactly the type of stench anyone wants to indulge in.
According to the National Cancer Institute, when formaldehyde is present in the air at levels exceeding 0.1 parts per million, some individuals may experience health effects such as watery eyes; burning sensations of the eyes, nose and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation.
Those are just the short-term effects. A 1987 study by the Environmental Protection Agency classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen with unusually high or prolonged exposure.
So, unless you camp out under the vent at Ramaley for years on end, the smell is relatively innocuous.
“It’s not a hazard. It’s just annoying,” White said.
However, pregnant women are advised not to take the lab section of the course. Studies have shown that many of the chemicals present in embalming fluids are threats to the health of fetuses.
When asked whether there was any chance that the cadavers were being preserved improperly, Ruth Heisler, a faculty member for CU’s integrative physiology department, chuckled.
“No, that isn’t true,” Heisler said.
She said the smells are nothing to worry about.
“We actually vent our rooms,” Heisler said. “Which is more than most university laboratories do.”
CU’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety makes regular checks on the cadavers to ensure safety for all students.
After each semester, the cadavers, along with all tissue that has been dissected, are returned to their respective families for cremation.
The Department of Environmental Health and Safety’s official Web site is ehs.colorado.edu.