The newest advance in clandestine grave detection may come from a handheld device, not from the next generation of human remains detection dogs.
Dead men do tell tales. A new hand-held odor-sniffing technology capable of locating buried human bodies has emerged at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the form of a device called LABRADOR, an acronym for Light-weight Analyzer for Buried Remains And Decomposition Odor Recognition.
The instrument is designed to be used at the soil surface to detect volatile organic chemical compounds (VOCs) emitted by decomposing human bodies buried in shallow graves 1.5 feet to 3.5 feet deep. According to the FBI, the average clandestine grave is about 2 to 2.5 feet deep. In the case of a corpse buried in roughly 18 inches of soil, it takes about 17 days for odors to first make their way to the surface.
The Oak Ridge device is not as sensitive as innate canine olfactory capabilities, but one advantage of LABRADOR is that it can detect and alert the operator to the amount of odor present.
“In other words, it can map the odor plume coming from the ground where the body is buried, which can be a key factor in pinpointing the location of the grave or looking for victims in natural disasters,” said Oak Ridge senior researcher and forensic expert Arpad A. Vass, leader of the team that developed LABRADOR. Vass is also affiliated with the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility, known also as the Body Farm, a research lab devoted to studying the decay of donated human remains over time in various environments and conditions.
Police frequently use dogs trained to detect the odor of human decomposition to help find clandestine burials. However, few studies have attempted to identify the specific VOCs emitted from decaying corpses. Vass decided to find out what chemicals reach the surface that originate in a buried human body.
He started by collecting the VOCs associated with burial decomposition—those that rose through the soil and reached the surface. Triple sorbent traps were used over four bodies for four years at the Body Farm to collect air samples. Eight major classes of chemicals were revealed which now contain 478 specific volatile compounds associated with burial decomposition.