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The Impact of Drugs on Human Decomposition: What Insect, Scavenger, and Microbial Evidence Tells Us

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2023

This publication provides an overview of a research study that examined the relationships between decomposition and end-of-life diseases and the drugs in donors' systems, whether the drugs were over-the-counter, prescription, or illicit, and providing specific discussion about the decomposition process being slowed by neurological and cancer drugs.


The University of Tennessee Body Farm, formally known as the Anthropology Research Facility, is a 2.5-acre wooded property where researchers have been studying decomposition in a variety of natural settings since 1981. This research helps better understand how bodies break down and what may affect that process. It is essential for estimating time of death. Recently, the researchers noticed an interesting phenomenon. Human bodies donated for study and placed in the same environment at the exact same time were decomposing at different rates. The characteristics of the deceased bodies appeared to enhance or disrupt decomposition. This caused the researchers to question the accuracy of time since death approximations — or the postmortem interval — based on human and insect evidence. They determined that those estimates may contain more errors than has been previously estimated. This article details how National Institute of Justice-funded researchers analyzed the relationship between a donor’s drug use, end-of-life diseases, and their decomposition dynamics, which are affected by the behavior and presence of scavengers, insects, and intestinal microbes. Although preliminary analysis revealed no statistically significant correlation between end-of-life condition, toxicology, and the accuracy of time since death estimates, the researchers identified patterns that indicate a donor’s drug use influences soil, microbe, and insect characteristics. This research may ultimately inform how postmortem interval estimates should be modified in the presence of certain drugs.

Date Published: January 1, 2023