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Outside the Lab Forensics, Profession, Training and education

Missing: One Human Decomposition Facility

The argument for human taphonomy research is a convincing one – a better understanding of the death and decomposition process, improved cadaver detection abilities, higher-quality forensic testimony in courts of law, and more. But despite the many points in its favor, there are still only a few facilities for the study of human decomposition worldwide. Notably, the United Kingdom lacks one – but that’s a fact members of the Human Taphonomy Facility for UK Forensic Science (HTF4UK) project hope to change. We spoke to Anna Williams, who runs HTF4UK, to learn more.

Why do we need human decomposition facilities?

Without these facilities, we can’t do rigorous scientific experiments to determine the effects of certain human conditions on decomposition rates. Some experiments must be performed on humans; we can’t use animal analogs to study the effects of smoking or drug use, or conditions like diabetes or cancer, or other lifestyle factors, such as diet. A vegetarian, for instance, is likely to decompose at a different rate to someone who eats meat because they will have different gut bacteria. But without human decomposition facilities, we can’t do the research we need to help us understand these factors.

Research conducted at the existing facilities – particularly the one in Tennessee, because it has been around longer than any other – has shown us that decomposition is extremely dependent on local climate, environment, and conditions. Insects, scavengers, soil type, temperature, humidity, and rainfall all affect decomposition rate. And because the UK is so different to Tennessee or Australia, the data coming out of those facilities aren’t terribly applicable to our forensic cases; I’d argue that it’s essential for the UK to have its own human decomposition facility.

No two of the existing facilities are alike. Some, like the Freeman ranch in Texas and the AFTER facility in Australia, are very big; others, like the one at Western Carolina University or the one in the Netherlands, are very small. The Amsterdam facility, ARISTA – which currently houses only a single cadaver – is only 20 meters by 20 meters! Obviously, space isn’t the only consideration; it’s important to take into account location, security, and other factors – but it’s too early to be thinking about such aspects for a UK facility at the moment.

What I would particularly like to see in a new facility is the opportunity to study water environments. None of the existing facilities is equipped for the study of water decomposition, which I think could make a human decomposition facility in a country with lots of rivers and lakes like the UK unique.

Human decomposition facilities are valuable in another way: they allow students to get hands-on experience with real human cadavers – invaluable if they intend to pursue a career in medicine or life science, especially subjects related to forensics. We don’t want their first experience of a body to be their first day on the job; we want to expose them to the sights and the smells and everything that goes into researching with humans, so that they can make an informed decision as to whether or not it’s the right career for them. I’ve always felt that it was incredibly important for my students to have exposure to the real thing – or as close to the real thing as possible.

I have people writing to me already, volunteering to help at a UK facility that doesn’t exist yet! There’s always a lot of interest from students, and the universities that house existing facilities have seen student numbers go up as a result. Whichever UK university takes on the task of establishing and running a human decomposition facility, I’m sure it will massively boost their recruitment; students will go out of their way to attend a university with such a unique opportunity for forensic and medical research and experience.

What are the obstacles to establishing a new human decomposition facility?

One of the big challenges for us – and forensic science research in general – is funding. There’s no government or research council funding for forensic science, so it’s difficult to finance the establishment of a human decomposition facility. That said, I don’t think it would be terribly expensive to set up such a facility. I think we’d need about £1 million to start with, which is relatively small fry compared with some large laboratories.

In addition, we would ideally like to see a minor change to the scheduled purposes of the Human Tissue Authority (HTA). Right now, institutions can apply to the HTA if they want to undertake activities using human tissues, but when they were coming up with those scheduled purposes, they didn’t think about forensic taphonomy research, so that isn’t included. And that technically means that this kind of work is outside the remit of the HTA and therefore doesn’t require regulation.

However, those of us who want to start a human taphonomy facility in the UK believe that it should be regulated by the HTA, so we are trying to request that they add forensic taphonomy research to their list of scheduled purposes. The work can go ahead without that addition to the scheduled purposes, but we’d prefer that it be regulated just as any other use of human tissue would be.

What are the most common misconceptions about “body farms?”

I haven’t encountered many misconceptions from the general public. Most people with whom I speak are very pro-human decomposition facility – although, of course, it’s a self-selecting population of individuals who attend my talks or contact me via email, so they’re always very supportive. I’ve also run an online survey – the largest ever conducted to date – to drill down into people’s opinions on these facilities. How would they feel if there were one in the UK? How would they feel if there were one close to them? Would they be worried about house prices going down? Scavengers? The smell? But, perhaps surprisingly, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. As far as my own research and experience can tell me, people think a human decomposition facility is a good idea.

The only negative comments I’ve received have been from fellow academics. Some say that we wouldn’t learn anything we don’t already know – a very short-sighted argument in my opinion. We can’t possibly know everything about how humans decompose in the UK, because nobody has ever researched it. There is so much to learn about how a body interacts with its environment in the UK – with our soils, insects, and scavengers – so, as one supporter put it, we don’t know yet what we don’t know. We need the opportunity to perform forensic taphonomy research so that we can find out what areas of knowledge we lack.

Another objection I’ve heard is that being able to donate to a facility might reduce the number of people who donate their bodies to medical schools for anatomy dissection. I find that contestable as well, because the medical schools with whom we have spoken have all said that they don’t think that would be a problem. In fact, they would welcome an alternative option for body donation. Often, medical schools have to reject potential donors because they’re unsuitable for anatomic dissection. Having a taphonomy facility to which they could donate would actually allow more people to donate to science.

Academics have also suggested that you can’t obtain the large numbers of replicates that you need for statistically powerful experiments in human decomposition. First, I’m not sure that’s the case; you might be able to get large enough numbers if you coordinated efforts between different body donation programs around the country or even abroad. You could place bodies from the necessary demographic groups into storage until you had enough to perform a large experiment. Second, such an effort might not even be necessary. I mentioned this concern to my colleagues at the Amsterdam facility, and they said that they didn’t worry about statistical power in their experiments because they use their facility to do pilot tests. Over the years, they will gather a large amount of data – and, eventually, they’ll be able to interrogate their database to separate out different demographic groups and look for patterns. But, at least to begin with, statistical power may not be a major concern.

What would you most like pathologists to know about taphonomy research?

People – even other professionals – tend to think of forensic taphonomy research as disgusting, off-putting, or undignified. In my mind, it’s no different to donating your body to medical science. If you were going for an operation and your surgeon told you that they had only operated on pigs before, you would probably be a little concerned. Similarly, we don’t want our forensic scientists to stand up in court, where a person could go to prison or be set free as a result of their testimony, relying only on research that has been done on pigs. It’s not good enough.

Forensic taphonomy helps us improve the accuracy of post-mortem interval estimation in people who have decomposed, especially those who aren’t found immediately. But it’s also incredibly important for finding missing bodies in the first place – something we currently find quite challenging. Human taphonomy facilities can help us improve the techniques we have for finding bodies (for instance, geophysics, aerial photography, or cadaver dogs). Cadaver dogs in the UK tend to be trained on animal remains, yet their job is to find human remains. A taphonomy facility would let us train them on human remains, which would not only allow us to do research into what they’re finding and how well they’re finding it, but also to do competency testing for the dogs, improving their accuracy and increasing the value of their evidence in court.

People don’t consider forensic research valuable because it isn’t directly saving lives like medicine, for example. However, for those who have been a victim of a crime or known someone who has died in a disaster, answers can help. People need to know what has happened to their loved ones, and a human taphonomy facility is one way to provide those answers about disaster victims, violent crime victims, or people who have gone missing and whose bodies have been found years later. This is the only way we can do the kind of rigorous research that we need to investigate those questions.

Anna Williams is Principal Enterprise Fellow in Forensic Science at the University of Huddersfield. She also runs the HTF4UK project (htf4uk.blogspot.com) and can be found on Twitter at @Bonegella and @HTF_4_UK.

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About the Author

Anna Williams

Anna Williams is Principal Enterprise Fellow in Forensic Science at the University of Huddersfield. She also runs the HTF4UK project (htf4uk.blogspot.com) and can be found on twitter at @Bonegella and @HTF_4_UK.

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