The Science and Significance of Decomposing Body Odor

The odor of a decomposing body is unmistakable and often overwhelmingly unpleasant. This scent is a result of the biological processes of decomposition, which begin almost immediately after death. Understanding the factors that contribute to this distinctive odor not only provides insights into the decomposition process but also has important implications for fields such as forensic science and biohazard cleanup.

The Process of Decomposition

Decomposition is the process by which organic substances are broken down into simpler forms of matter. Human decomposition is a complex process that involves various stages, starting with autolysis, where the body begins to break down from the inside out due to the action of its own enzymes. This is followed by bloat, active decay, advanced decay, and finally, dry remains.

During these stages, particularly during active decay, microbial action accelerates, and the body begins to release a range of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds are the primary source of the potent smell associated with body decomposition.

Chemicals Contributing to the Odor

The smell of decomposition is largely due to the chemical compounds produced during the breakdown of body tissues. These include:

  • Cadaverine and putrescine These foul-smelling compounds arise from the breakdown of amino acids and are among the first VOCs produced during decomposition.
  • Skatole and indole: These chemicals are responsible for the fecal odor due to the decomposition of gut and associated tissues.
  • Hydrogen sulfide: This gas gives a rotten-egg smell and is a by-product of the breakdown of proteins and other organic tissues.
  • Methanethiol: A sulfur compound that adds to the pungent, distinctive smell.

These and other chemicals create a complex scent signature that can vary based on factors such as the environment, the cause of death, and the presence of clothing or wrappings.

The Role of Decomposition Odor in Forensic Science

In forensic science, the smell of decomposition can serve as an important indicator of the time elapsed since death, which helps in determining the post-mortem interval (PMI). Specially trained cadaver dogs can detect the scent of decomposition, aiding in the location of human remains for criminal investigations and disaster response.

Biohazard Cleanup and Odor Removal

The presence of a decomposing body can pose serious biohazard risks, necessitating professional cleanup services. Biohazard cleanup technicians are trained to deal with the strong odors and potential health hazards associated with decomposition. They use industrial-grade chemicals and specialized equipment to thoroughly clean and disinfect the area, as well as techniques to neutralize and remove the pervasive odor.

Health Implications of Exposure to Decomposition Odors

Prolonged exposure to the odors of decomposition can have health implications, including nausea, vomiting, and psychological effects due to the distressing nature of the smell. In cases of extreme decomposition, there is also a risk of airborne pathogens or toxins, which can cause respiratory problems and other health issues.


The odor of a decomposing body is a natural consequence of the death process, and while it may be distressing, it plays a significant role in ecological cycles, forensic science, and mortuary practices. Understanding the origins and implications of this odor allows for better management in situations where decomposition occurs, ensuring respect for the deceased and safety for the living.

For anyone dealing with the aftermath of a decomposing body, whether in a professional capacity or during a tragic personal experience, knowledge about the process and access to professional biohazard cleanup services is critical to handle the situation safely and with dignity.

One of the services our trauma and biohazard remediation company offers is help in the event of an unattended death. This type of decease is often encountered by landlords. If you’re a property owner, just exactly what do you do when one of your tenants has passed away without anyone there? As a landlord you have certain rights and responsibilities, and it’s important to know what they are to avoid possible legal problems.

PLEASE BE ADVISED we are not attorneys and cannot give you legal advice. This article is not intended to provide specific legal counsel but simply lays out what you may expect. A wise landlord already has a relationship with a lawyer, and hopefully your attorney has given you some basic information.

Perhaps death was anticipated but the person was alone when they passed. A death like that is most likely quickly noticed. On the other hand, it may be the person lived alone and had very little contact with others. In a case like that, it may be days before anyone discovers the deceased.

The term ‘unattended death’ simply means no one was present with the person died. But there are things that landlords should be aware of. If you own a property in our service area here in Washington State and some of the surrounding Pacific Northwest communities, something you might want to consider is calling a biohazard and trauma recovering company such as ours. We deal with situations like this and we can help you through the process.

Step 1: Contact authorities. The simplest way to do so is to call 911 and then wait for first responders/police/etc. to arrive. You don’t want to take any other action until you’re notified by them that you an proceed. You must have written notice of death before taking any further action. (In some states you can lock the property without having the written notice; this varies from state to state.)

Step 2: Make sure the rental property is secured. Our suggestion is to change the locks, since you have no idea who else might have a key. Make sure windows as locked as well.

Step 3: Hopefully the person has provided you with emergency contact information. Once you have the official written death notice, you’ll need to notify closest family members, or if the deceased had a will, whoever is handling the estate. At that point, the next of kin or representative of the estate (if there is a will) should work in conjunction with you as the property owner. Personal belongings will need to be removed, and in all likelihood biohazard cleaning needs to take place, depending on the stage of the decomposition of the body. It’s especially important if there is blood involved. But upon death other bodily fluids are also released and can pose a safety and health hazard if not handled properly.

In an upcoming post we’ll share more about just what services our company (and others in our industry) offer, and what’s involved. But for now, just know the basics of the initial steps as well as what your rights as a property owner as well as your responsibilities as a landlord are. of the biohazard and trauma cleanup services we offer is related to unattended death.  This is a catch-all category, because it can include someone passing away from natural causes, a disease, criminal activity, or suicide.  The common factor? The death occurred when no one was around to know it happened. This fact can create problems.

The first to address may be the emotional trauma of the deceased’s friends or family.  Suffering a death from the loss of a loved one is difficult, but when you are not present or not even aware it has occurred until afterward, the emotional impact can be even worse.  So our first task when called upon to provide cleanup in the aftermath of an unattended death is for those living.  Our trauma counselors first want to make sure that those left behind have the care and resources to process what has happened.

The next step is cleanup and restoration of the area where the death occurred, and this is where quick response is important. (We are on call 24/7, 365 days of the year, because we recognize the need to take care of a situation like this as soon as possible.)

Depending on a variety of elements, including temperature, a human body will begin to decompose somewhere between 24-72 hours. Decomposition is a natural process, but it can release toxins into the surrounding area. Decomposition is brought about by bacteria, and that is what produces the characteristic smell associated with a dead body.

Some of that release can happen immediately upon death as bladder and bowel sphincter muscles cease working and urine and feces are released.  Some deaths result in large amounts of blood.  Bodily fluids can themselves be contaminated with toxins, but their very presence will attract other threats – insects, rodents, bacteria and more. Blood can be especially hazardous, because in addition to bacteria, blood may also be contaminated due to the health issues of the deceased (HIV, hepatitis, and more).

Bodily fluids can seep into anything porous – carpeting, wood, bedding, mattresses, and more. Because of that, surface cleaning is not enough.  Carpeting must be removed, and at times even the wood underfloor must be replaced.  Some harmful bacteria can live for extended time periods in porous surfaces, and often the best way to get rid of the bacteria is to get rid of the material.

Once the body is removed, we get to work to thoroughly clean, disinfect, and restore the property to a livable condition.  Household cleaners are usually insufficient for this task, and that’s why we don’t recommend you attempt post-death cleanup yourself.  Plus, there are regulations regarding the disposal of toxic waste (i.e., materials contaminated with bodily fluids) which the general public is most likely unaware of.

Once we are satisfied that our remediation techs have cleared the area of biohazards (substances that are harmful to health), we move on to repair of any physical damage and restoration of the property.

One further service we offer is that we work with any insurance company involved. And we will cover your deductible.  Dealing with death is traumatic enough, so we do what we can to lessen the burden for you.  And we will do so in a respectful and discreet manner, having compassion on those we serve.  We understand that there is a need for this service, but we also realize those we serve are living, breathing, grieving human beings.  We are here to help you through this difficult process.

MedTech offers unattended death cleanup and other trauma-related remediation services in the Seattle and Spokane, Washington areas, as well as other communities in the Pacific Northwest.  If we may be of assistance to you, please contact us via phone (877) 691-6706 or email [email protected].

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