Contamination of cremated remains spotted with X-ray fluorescence

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  • Published: Apr 16, 2015
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: X-ray Spectrometry

Contamination of human cremated remains with non-skeletal material can be detected by X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, although the exact origins of the contaminants remain elusive.

It might seem to be a strange thing to want to do, but there have been cases where crematories have deliberately not cremated bodies and returned urns to the families filled with materials like concrete mix. Remains can also be mixed with other material after fierce fires, explosions and plane crashes.

Forensic anthropologists struggle to find evidence of non-human material in the so-called cremains since the material is generally so fine but X-ray fluorescence spectrometry provides a way out, say US researchers in Journal of Forensic Sciences.

The technique relies on the presence of significant peaks derived from elements other than calcium and phosphorus, such as aluminium and sulphur. Conversely, the absence of unusual elemental peaks combined with a calcium/phosphorus ratio in the normal range will be a sign of uncontaminated remains. This preliminary work would benefit from additional studies to develop a database of potential contaminants and their elemental content in particular adulterant materials.

The growth of the handheld XRF device market will make the technique more readily available to forensic anthropology labs, although the data still require some expertise for correct interpretation.

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