Odor Analysis of Decomposing Buried Human Remains*


  • *

    This work was funded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit. The submitted manuscript has been authorized by a contractor of the U.S. Government under contract No. DE-ACO5-00OR22725. Accordingly, the U.S. Government retains a nonexclusive, royalty-free license to publish or reproduce the published form of this contribution, or to allow others to do so, for U.S. Government purposes.

Additional information and reprint requests:
Arpad A. Vass, Ph.D.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
1 Bethel Valley Road
P.O. Box 2008
X-10, 4500S, MS 6101, Room E-148
Oak Ridge, TN 37831-6101
E-mail: vassaa@ornl.gov


Abstract:  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.