Investigation into the potential for post-mortem formation of carboxyhemoglobin in bodies retrieved from fires
The forensic investigation of a deceased person retrieved following a fire includes measuring carboxyhemoglobin. A carboxyhemoglobin saturation above 10% is considered indicative of respiration during a fire, implying the person had been alive. This relies on the assumption that carbon monoxide will not diffuse into blood used for toxicological analysis. This project investigated the potential for carbon monoxide to passively diffuse into a body and if carboxyhemoglobin levels could become elevated post-mortem. Stillborn piglets with intact skin were exposed to carbon monoxide. Carboxyhemoglobin formed in the hypostasis of the skin, but carboxyhemoglobin levels in blood from the heart and chest cavities were not significantly elevated. However, defects in the skin over body cavities (producing breaches to replicate cases with stab wounds or heat damage) resulted in cavity blood carboxyhemoglobin levels above 10%. A review of fire death cases in South Australia 2000–2015 was performed to determine the origin of the blood samples used for toxicological analysis and the incidence of cases with breaches of body cavities. This revealed a small number of cases in which blood from the cavities had been analyzed when cavity breaches were present. Thus, there is a potential for significant elevation of carboxyhemoglobin saturation post-mortem in forensic casework involving bodies retrieved from fires.
KeywordsFire Carboxyhemoglobin Hypostasis Carbon monoxide Cavity defect Diffusion Animal model Autopsy
We would like to thank Dr. Jason Gascooke and Prof. Warren Lawrence, Flinders University. Financial support for this study was provided by FSSA through a studentship and the Ross Vining Memorial Research Fund.
Compliance with ethical standards
Disclosure of potential conflicts of interest
Research involving human participants and/or animals
SAHMRI and Flinders University animal ethics committees accepted notification for use of scavenged tissues.
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