Friday 22 August 2014

On the agenda: Human Taphonomy Facility in the UK

This is a short article published in this month's Home Office Forensic Pathology newsletter:

A Human Taphonomy Facility for Europe? (Dr Anna Williams, University of Huddersfield)

Taphonomy is the study of the processes of decomposition and decay of organic and inorganic materials in a variety of environments. The study of human decomposition in different conditions is crucial for the understanding of the factors that influence the rate of decomposition, and vital for the accurate estimation of post-mortem interval, which underpins the successful investigation of crime. The only way to accurately examine these processes is to experiment using human cadavers in specialist outdoor laboratories called “taphonomy facilities”.

At present, a Human Taphonomy Facility (HTF) does not exist in the UK or Europe. In the USA, there are six functioning facilities that regularly use donated human cadavers for undertaking forensic research into decomposition in different environments. Permission has recently been granted for the establishment of a HTF in Australia. Taphonomic processes are highly dependent on climatic conditions, flora and fauna, and so these facilities are not in competition, but are working together to provide an overview of decomposition processes in different climates. The scientific publications created by the HTFs in the USA have made significant contributions to forensic science in the last three decades.
The geological and climatic conditions, and animal and insect scavengers in Europe and the UK are very different to those in the US and Australia, and the data generated from these HTFs is not directly relevant or applicable to forensic cases in Europe. There have been attempts to rectify this imbalance in the UK through the use of taphonomy facilities that use porcine cadavers as human analogues, but the data generated is necessarily „one step away‟ from human data and its applicability is still debated. Without a human taphonomy facility in Europe, we are falling behind the USA and Australia in terms of academic and forensic advancements in the understanding of human decomposition. This already has a profound effect on expert witness evidence and testimony in criminal cases (Grinberg, 2011).

In the last five years, there has been one attempt to establish a HTF in the UK, by Omega Supplies Ltd, which failed due to a lack of collaboration between Universities. There is now an opportunity to establish a Human Taphonomy Facility properly. The Facility would only work with the involvement and agreement of organisations such as DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Human Tissue Authority, ACPO, NPIA, CAST, Royal College of Pathologists, Home Office, the Research Councils, HSE, National Research Ethics Service, and the Chartered Society for Forensic Science, among others. This is an ambitious project that requires collaboration and forethought from a range of agencies. It requires careful planning in order to comply with ethics and environmental legislation, and not to offend public sensibilities*.

Members of the Burial Research Consortium are hoping to convene a meeting of key stakeholders in the autumn at the University of Huddersfield to discuss and debate the feasibility of establishing a HTF for Europe in the UK.

Cassella, J. and 10004883 (Student number) (2014) The Feasibility of a United Kingdom Human Taphonomy Facility. Staffordshire University, unpublished Forensic Science Independent Project.

Cross, P. Simmons, T. Cunliffe, R. Chatfield, L. (2010) Establishing a Taphonomic Research Facility in the United Kingdom. Forensic Science Policy & Management, 1(4):187-191.

Grinberg, E. (2011) Flawed forensic evidence explains Casey Anthony acquittal, experts say. CNN. [Accessed 14th May 2014].

Human Taphonomy Facility for Teaching and Research

Turner B., Wiltshire P. (1999) Experimental validation of forensic evidence: a study of the decomposition of buried pigs in a heavy clay soil. Forensic Science International, 101(2):113-22.

*A recent research report has indicated that there is global public support for the principle and methodology of such an endeavour (Cassella and 10004883, 2014).

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