How Does Environment Affect Body Decomposition?

Joe MayDecomposition, End of Life, Human Remains Cleanup

How Does Environment Affect Body Decomposition?

You may have heard of “The Body Farm”, the two-acre outdoor laboratory operated by the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center. It’s become well-known in the past decade thanks to the media responding to society’s curiosity about death. There, scholars study the process of decomposition of donated human remains under varying circumstances. Data collected at The Body Farm (more appropriately and accurately referred to by the University as the Anthropological Research Facility), has greatly aided criminologists as they process crime scenes and determine how long a body has remained unattended since the time of death.

We at BioRecovery aren’t scientists, but given our nearly two decades’ of experience serving clients across the nation, we too have become very familiar with the environmental and temporal effects on a dead body.

The Basics of Body Decomposition

As soon as a person expires, the body begins to break down on a cellular level. Bacteria living on and in the body, as well as enzymes in the tissues, will further the process. During this process, gases bloat the body, sometimes causing the skin to rupture. The pressure will also force liquids from existing body orifices.

By this point, insects will have already set to work, laying eggs around the eyes, nose, and mouth of the decedent. Larvae will accelerate the decomposition process by consuming the tissue and exposing more surface area to the elements. If the remains are in an outdoor setting, or in a building with access to animals, bones and remaining tissue may be damaged and scattered beyond the site.

Hot and Humid vs Cold and Dry; Wet and Cold vs Hot and Dry

These are the four main weather combinations that affect the way a body decomposes. Add in air circulation or stagnation, direct sunlight, or the surface on which a body lies, and you’re one foot deeper down a rabbit hole than we can cover in a single post. But we’ll try, with a little help from a 2018 study, “Modern (Forensic) Mummies: A Study of Twenty Cases” published in Forensic Science International.

Warm, humid temperatures, such as those found year-round in Florida or summer in New York City, increase bacteria growth and insect activity. Microbes are always in our environment, on our skin, and in our digestive tract; we avoid bacteria such as e. coli and salmonella, but we can’t live without the “good” bacteria that breaks down our food and protects our skin surface. Refrigeration causes most bacteria in our environment to become sluggish, which is why we refrigerate our food and why medical examiners keep bodies in cold storage.

Dry climates, either cold or warm, may rapidly cause the body to “mummify” from the outside inward. Bacteria need moisture—even the relatively moist surface of living skin—to remain viable and the circulation of dry air aids the desiccation process. A small residence sealed to retain heat or air conditioning (with the exception of evaporative air cooling systems, or “swamp coolers”) can preserve a corpse from rapid decomposition.

In many cases, modern, energy-efficient homes also have fewer entries for insect and rodent pests. Our Bio Recovery technicians often clean up after crime scenes that were remarkably well-preserved due to these conditions, and they’re a stark contrast to death scenes in rooms with open windows, humid temperatures, and access to summer-loving insects. It’s rare that we come across a death scene in which a body has been completely sealed off from the elements, but when tightly-sealed cast iron coffins from the 19th century were accidentally unearthed in New Jersey and New York in 2005 and 2018, forensic pathologists were amazed by the corpses’ lack of body decomposition.

That’s why it might be easier for a biohazard company to clean up after an unattended death in a modern, hermetically-sealed, energy-efficient Florida home during summer than it would be in an older apartment in New York City. That is only one of several problems associated with unattended death cleanup. Of course, a body (or simply a bag of groceries) left in a modern, sound-proofed vehicle and parked in the hot sun is another matter entirely; at BioRecovery, we’ve remediated our share of “biohazard cars”.

An Appreciation for Crime Scene Investigation

When a person dies, their last meal, medications, pre-death physical condition, and even their clothing affects how long it takes for the body to decompose. Ultraviolet rays from direct sunlight may restrict microbial growth, as it does with UV sterilizing systems for food and water or speed it up under the “greenhouse effect”. All these factors contribute to the ongoing puzzle forensic anthropologists at the Body Farm (and at least five other similar facilities in the US) seek to solve for the sake of accurate crime scene investigation. Their methods help bring justice and closure to crime survivors.

While crime scene cleanup companies like Bio Recovery don’t handle the bodies ourselves, we feel we’re helping our clients get one tiny step closer to healing by thoroughly removing any chemical and biohazardous residue left over after a crime or unattended death, no matter how advanced the decomposition. This includes the compounds used to locate fingerprints, DNA, and blood spatter, as well as the body fluids and tissue left behind after the yellow tape comes down.

Our highly-trained technicians have likely experienced as many death scenarios as the average forensic anthropologist. While the topic—or the actual crime scene—may be disturbing to the average person, for those of us who encounter death every day, it’s simply a job we treat with respect, dignity, care, and detail.

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