Friday, February 17, 2006

Odor Chemistry

One of the things that can make the Coroner’s “business” tough are the odors we encounter (I guess that is really more than “one of the things”). They are certainly part of what makes this work “not for everyone”.

Not infrequently we are called to a death that has not been discovered for some time, a week or more. These individual’s are still treated with the dignity they deserve, but these cases can be particularly tough on everyone involved. After several days the body begins to decompose and several odiferous amines are given off into the surrounding effluvium. Chemicals like pentamethylenediamine (cadaverine) and butanediamine (putrescine) are products of protein hydrolysis.

I bring up these facts for several reasons. One, to demonstrate that Chemistry can have practical applications and can come up in real life (teachers particularly love when I do that on tours and presentations; keep studying kids). Two, these can be interesting facts to bring up as you chat around the table at Starbucks, things you might not learn on CSI. Third, as a bit of a warning to those contemplating or taking a tour of the Coroner’s Office, these chemicals may be in the air despite our using air deodorizers and other state-of-the-art chemicals to control the occasional odor in the non-“office” parts of our office. And fourth, as a warning to those charging into the field of Forensics because of the attractiveness of the plethora of CSI-esque TV shows that this field is not for everyone and while it can be very rewarding in many ways, it at times lacks glamour.

As a side note and/or "plug": I taped a brief interview for Eye on Chicago" with Antonio Mora that will be shown Sunday, Feb. 19 at 10:30 am. It was fun to do.


The Gorczynskis' said...

Hi, I'm from Australia and regualarly tune into your Blogs as part of my Must-Read sites. On the subject of today's blog, what do coroners do to minimise the discomfort from the odours during investigation/examination? Are you allowed to don on "eucalyptus-coated masks" or the likes to help keep your composure. For that matter, do coroners ever throw up while examining cadavers?

Dr. Richard Keller said...

We can try several things to assist with olfactorally challenging cases: menthol or eucalyptus under the nose, “metholyptus” “drop” in our mouth, breathing shallowly, and the like, but those things are variably effective. We do have “respirators” (essentially “gas masks”) we can use if the odor is very severe. Most often we have to tough it out. And, yes, at times it does get bad enough to cause retching and rarely vomiting (not on scene), even to the most experienced in our staff (we are people too).

Ed E. o'Path said...

Our office is on a Cositron (sp?) system that filters the air. The "front of the office" is separated from the morgue(s) by a breezeway.

When one is in the morgue, standing over a decomposing body, there is scant little to be done about the odors. There is solace in the fact that the odors will be neutralized as soon as the source (the body) leaves the autopsy area.

But that's how it all goes down here at our office. Every M.E./Coroner office is different, surely.