Adipocere and post-mortem interval: multiple variables for consideration and study
Murray, Claudine B.
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This thesis looks at and analyzes the current body of research into the early-stage formation of adipocere as it pertains to post-mortem interval determination. Adipocere is a waxlike substance that can encase bodies after death if certain conditions are met: temperature, moisture content, other environmental factors, and the presence of bacteria that transform fatty acids into the hydroxy- and oxy-fatty acids that make up much of the adipocere substance. Adipocere formation arrests the process of decomposition, making it difficult for forensic pathologists to determine a post-mortem interval. The thesis identifies several issues with current research into early-stage adipocere. Firstly, the majority of scientific papers on the subject make use of pig adipose as a stand-in for human adipose due to ethical concerns. However, this traditional forensic method is not suited for studies into adipocere formation: the fatty acid profiles of pigs and humans have differing ratios of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, making them an unreliable analog for adipocere testing. In addition, most studies assume a three-month timeframe for the formation process when preparing their experimental design, a timeframe thrown into question by both current data and several existing case studies demonstrating more rapid adipocere formation. Lastly, testing takes place in static environments, which does not reflect actual field conditions. There have been cases that suggest adipocere formation ceases during colder months once decomposition has initially halted. In these cases, the adipocere formation begins again once temperatures return to 22°C or higher. Another issue noted is the lack of chemical analysis conducted on early-formation adipocere. The changes in fatty acid ratios that take place during the process are not typically looked at by scientists investigating the phenomenon or forensic pathologists dealing with adipocere cases, but may offer a viable means of narrowing down post-mortem intervals and contribute to better timelines for pathologists and law enforcement. This thesis ultimately recommends a number of additional research directions necessary for building a temperature zone-based database of case and laboratory results, particularly ones that take into account the variable formation timeframe observed in previous experiments and case studies.
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