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Odor Analysis of Decomposing Buried Human Remains

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This study, conducted at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility (ARF), lists and ranks the primary chemical constituents which define the odor of decomposition of human remains as detected at the soil surface of shallow burial sites. Triple sorbent traps were used to collect air samples in the field and revealed eight major classes of chemicals which now contain 478 specific volatile compounds associated with burial decomposition. Samples were analyzed using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and were collected below and above the body, and at the soil surface of 1.5–3.5 ft. (0.46–1.07 m) deep burial sites of four individuals over a 4-year time span. New data were incorporated into the previously established Decompositional Odor Analysis (DOA) Database providing identification, chemical trends, and semi-quantitation of chemicals for evaluation. This research identifies the “odor signatures” unique to the decomposition of buried human remains with projected ramifications on human remains detection canine training procedures and in the development of field portable analytical instruments which can be used to locate human remains in shallow burial sites.
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Keywords: buried bodies; clandestine graves; forensic science; human decomposition; human remains detection canines; odor analysis

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Life Sciences Division, Oak Ridge, TN 37831-6101. 2: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Chemical Sciences Division, Oak Ridge, TN 37831-6101. 3: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Laboratory Division, Evidence Response Team Unit, Quantico, VA 22135. 4: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Laboratory Division, Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit, Quantico, VA 22135.

Publication date: March 1, 2008

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