Detecting volatile organic compounds to locate human remains in a simulated collapsed building

Forensic Sci Int. 2021 Apr 17;323:110781. doi: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2021.110781. Online ahead of print.


The occurrence of mass disasters has increased worldwide due to changing environments from global warming and a heightened threat of terrorism acts. When these disasters strike, it is imperative to rapidly locate and recover human victims, both the living and deceased. While search and rescue dogs are used to locate the living, cadaver detection dogs are typically tasked with locating the dead. This can prove challenging because commingling of victims is likely to occur during disasters in populated areas which will impact the decomposition process and the resulting odour produced. To date, there has been no research to investigate the process of human decomposition in a mass disaster scenario or to understand which compounds are detectable by cadaver detection dogs. Hence, the current study investigated the human decomposition process and subsequent volatile organic compound (VOC) production in two simulated building collapse scenarios with six human donors placed in each scenario. The human remains were only recovered after a period of one month, during which time VOC samples were collected and analysed using comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography coupled with time-of-flight mass spectrometry. A considerable degree of differential decomposition was observed upon recovery of the human remains, which was carried out as a part of a police disaster victim recovery training exercise. The location of the bodies in the disaster area was found to impact the decomposition process. The VOC profile was found to correlate with the decomposition process. Fifteen days following the simulated disaster, the VOC profile changed showing that a detectable change in the decomposition process had occurred. Overall, the changing VOC profile can inform the training of cadaver detection dogs for these unique scenarios.

Keywords: Cadaver detection dogs; Commingled remains; DVI; Mass disaster; Odour detection.