Drowning and Forensics

Drowning almost always occurs as a result of an accident. It is quite a staggering and sobering thought that many of those people who drown each year in the United Kingdom do so because they have never been taught how to swim or simply have a morbid fear of water and when introduced to it panic and so drown.

What Happens as a Person Drowns?

As an individual drowns their lungs will fill with water and the ability to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream is diminished and as you struggle to breathe water is forced into the sinuses. Losing your air supply and also using up too much energy will lead to the oxygen in your blood falling rapidly and as a result the individual will lose consciousness in a very short space of time.

Drowning and Crime

Drowning is difficult to prove beyond the accidental death stage simply because of the nature in which it happens. Proving that an unknown assailant in some way aided the death of another by drowning is difficult to establish and can usually only be established if there are physical wounds such as cuts or bruises or indeed if an eye witness has saw the event take place.

The pathologist will attempt to reconstruct what happened by first determining what didn’t happen. This may sound a little contradictory but it is the easiest way to rule out anything other than accidental death. Quite simply if the pathologist has been asked to autopsy a body that was found in water but does not have any physical injuries or problems with heart disease then the most likely conclusion is that death was caused by drowning and is then listed as death by misadventure.

Indeed there may well be occasions when it proves difficult to establish whether or not the deceased was alive when they entered the water; this is because that even if an individual is deceased when they enter the water, providing the body remains submerged for a period of time, then the lungs will fill up anyway.

Occasionally a condition called ‘dry drowning’ may present itself; this is where the deceased’s larynx has gone into spasm as water has entered the throat, thus the passage to the lungs is blocked and any water that is already in there cannot get out and more water cannot get in.

The pathologist will however look for signs of haemorrhaging – blood in the lungs where the sheer force has caused them to bleed and also any remnants of the surroundings in which the deceased was found. These might include pieces of plant life only found underwater, stones or rocks and evidence of clawing on the fingers and hands in order to try and escape.

A pathologist will also attempt to provide evidence that the deceased died in fresh or salt water. This is particularly useful if there are suspicions of foul play. For example if the deceased is found in salt water but the water in their lungs is fresh water than it can be reasonably assumed that they did not die in that body of water in which they were found.

Without this particular test yielding any results drowning is something a pathologist will find difficult to prove as accident or foul play so it is important that they keep an open mind throughout. Read more about forensics in the water.

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