Chemical Profile of Decomposition Acquired to Improve Technology for Disasters and Crime

Jones Press Conference-1wFor many years, search dogs have been the standard for the discovery and retrieval of human cadavers in disasters and crimes. The problems with this method are the cost and time it takes to train these search dogs. A device to detect the gases given off of a cadaver would be cheaper and less time consuming than training detection dogs. When a cadaver decomposes, a series of gases are given off over time. In order to develop a device that could detect these gases, experiments had to be performed to discover which gases are given off in different stages of decomposition and also to analyze how the environment affects decomposition in different situations.

Such a device could have been helpful in the search for survivors and cadavers of the earthquake in Indonesia in September. Rescue workers were still searching with detection dogs on the fourth day, and hopes for finding survivors are slim. With a device to detect gases released during decomposition, the search process may have been accelerated.

The first tests were performed on human cadavers, but the human cadavers were not delivered until about two or three days after the person had died. There are certain gases, such as cadaverine and putrescine, that are given off very early in the decomposition process and would therefore be undetected by the time the scientists received the cadavers. Dan Sykes, Ph.D., and student, Sarah A. Jones, from Pennsylvania State University, studied the decomposition of pigs because they display the same stages of decomposition as humans. Sykes and Jones euthanized three pigs and put them into containers that were open at the bottom to allow for insects and air to reach the bodies of the pigs. The gases given off during the decomposition process were collected and analyzed by a solid phase micro extraction (SPME) bundle with polyacrylate fibers. These polyacrylate fibers are polar and are commonly used to collect air samples. Similarly, the gases given off by the body were collected into the fibers. The samples were collected every six to twelve hours over the period of one week and then analyzed using GC-MS. Certain gases, such as indole and putrescine, were not given off until later in the decomposition process, but precursor molecules to these gases were detected, which helped to estimate when the gases would be given off. Using this method, Sykes and Jones were able to create a timeline of decomposition for the pigs, which closely resembles the timeline for the decomposition of a human cadaver. Now that the decomposition timeline has been created, it is possible to begin to set up different scenarios in order to apply the timeline to real life situations of decomposition in disasters and crime scenes.

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  1. tsafko

    The specific programing behind this device sounds very complex. The amount of variables for each specific search situation would be staggering (temperatures, pressures, humidity, weather, cause of death, animals, elements in the soil). I’m not an expert but I feel like all of these would effect how the body decomposes as well as the rate at which this happens.

    It would take a very well trained chemist to work this machine in a variety of settings.

    25 October 2009

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