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Device May Help Spot Hidden Graves Without Digging

Air test allows investigators to detect bodies buried beneath concrete, scientists say

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 4, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- A new technology that's said to detect decomposing bodies in the ground could help police find murder victims in concealed graves, even under concrete, its developers say.

The device can detect trace amounts of ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen (NRN) that collects in air pockets above and close to grave soil, scientists at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) explained in a news release. Air samples are collected using a small probe inserted into the ground.

This is the only device that can detect NRN in the vapor phase, the researchers say. Until now, detection of NRN required the tedious and expensive process of solvent extraction of soil samples, they noted in the NIST news release.

The device can be used to detect a body under a concrete slab by drilling a small hole in the concrete and inserting the probe. This eliminates the need for digging, according to the authors of the report, Tara Lovestead and Thomas J. Bruno.

Currently, only the sampling device is portable. Testing of samples must still be done in the lab. But the researchers are working to develop a fully portable version of the instrument.

"This work [provides] another tool for forensic investigators to aid in locating elusive clandestine graves," Lovestead and Bruno wrote in the report, which was recently released online in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the journal Forensic Science International.

More information

The U.S. Department of Justice has more about crime scene investigations.

SOURCE: National Institute of Standards and Technology, news release, July 30, 2010
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