Using the “smell of death” to solve crimes

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Scientists and police detectives alike have long known that decomposing human bodies give off some ghastly smells—caused by the emission of the aptly named gases “cadaverine” and “putrescine,” among others—and that being able to sniff out those unseemly aromas can be critical at crime scenes or in the aftermath of a disaster as investigators work to recover bodies. For now, the primary sniffing responsibility falls to specially trained and very effective “cadaver dogs,” but new research from a team of chemists at Pennsylvania State University could soon change that.

By analyzing exactly which chemicals are emitted by the body at which stage of the decomposition process, scientists hope to design a tool that could accurately detect different gases, helping to not only locate bodies but perhaps even determine how long the person has been dead before the body is completely uncovered.

Previous research has determined that a decaying body releases some 30 different chemical compounds, and using donated cadavers, scientists have been able to isolate specific gases emitted after three or so days—generally the earliest that they would gain access to the donated bodies. Yet, in a study presented this week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C., researchers were able to more specifically follow the decomposition process—and the time frame in which different gases are emitted—by studying the decay of pig cadavers from the moment of death (by euthanasia). Pigs, often used for research purposes because of their many anatomical similarities to humans, have a similar decomposition process to humans—down to the actual phases and timing of decay—making them ideal for this type of research.

What’s more, for this study the researchers tried to mimic conditions similar to those at common crime scenes and disaster sites, to get a better idea of how environment could impact the process of decomposition. After this initial research, clear patterns for chemical compound emissions were already apparent, meaning that accurately creating a profile that matches particular gases, or “volatile organic compounds,” with the precise amount of time elapsed since death, could be in the near future. With that knowledge scientists could build a device programmed to identify these different gases and help locate bodies—potentially at a fraction of the cost of the training and care required for cadaver dogs.