Identification of decomposition volatile organic compounds from surface-deposited and submerged porcine remains

Lorna Irish, Samuel Rennie, Gareth Parkes, Anna Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


Cadaver dogs are routinely used internationally by police and civilian search organisations to locate human remains on land and in water, yet little is currently known about the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are released by a cadaver underwater; how this compares to those given off by a cadaver deposited on land; and ultimately, how this affects the detection of drowned victims by dogs. The aim of this study was to identify the VOCs released by whole porcine (Sus scrofa domesticus) cadavers deposited on the surface and submerged in water using solid phase microextraction gas chromatography mass spectrometry (SPME GC–MS) to ascertain if there are notable differences in decomposition odour depending on the deposition location.

For the first time in the UK, the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the headspace of decomposing porcine cadavers deposited in both terrestrial and water environments have been detected and identified using SPME-GCMS, including thirteen new VOCs not previously detected from porcine cadavers. Distinct differences were found between the VOCs emitted by porcine cadavers in terrestrial and water environments. In total, seventy-four VOCs were identified from a variety of different chemical classes; carboxylic acids, alcohols, aromatics, aldehydes, ketones, hydrocarbons, esters, ethers, nitrogen compounds and sulphur compounds. Only forty-one VOCs were detected in the headspace of the submerged pigs with seventy detected in the headspace of the surface-deposited pigs. These deposition-dependent differences have important implications for the training of cadaver dogs in the UK. If dog training does not account for these depositional differences, there is potential for human remains to be missed.

Whilst the specific odours that elicit a trained response from cadaver dogs remain unknown, this research means that recommendations can be made for the training of cadaver dogs to incorporate different depositions, to account for odour differences and mitigate the possibility of missed human remains operationally.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)503-515
Number of pages13
JournalScience and Justice
Issue number5
Early online date22 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2019


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