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The World of Forensic Laboratory Testing

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Forensic Pathology and Autopsies

Pathology involves the study of changes in the body caused by disease or injury. Forensic pathology involves the evaluation of pathology issues that arise in public forums such as criminal investigations and civil litigation. Most forensic pathologists are experts in each of two major branches of pathology. The first is anatomic, which deals with structural alterations of the human body. The second is clinical, which entails interpreting and overseeing laboratory testing on body fluids and tissues, including chemistry, hematology, microbiology, and others.

During an autopsy, the forensic pathologist first conducts a "gross examination." This involves detailed documentation of physical characteristics such as height, weight, color of hair/eyes/skin, any physical markings (scars, tattoos, wounds, etc.), or any other physical anomalies. The autopsy includes dissection and measurement of the internal organs. From these tissues, samples may be taken for microscopic examination. These samples may include blood, fluid from the eye (vitreous humor), urine, bile from the gallbladder, stomach contents, and solid organs such as liver, brain, and lung. Additionally, tissue samples are collected for toxicology testing and possibly for other laboratory tests, such as DNA typing, cultures for infectious disease, and various chemistry tests.

The fluid from the eye (vitreous humor) is particularly useful for determining the cause of death as it can be tested for a number of different substances, including drugs, toxins, and electrolytes to name a few. This fluid is easy to collect and quite useful in that changes in concentration of substances that normally occur after death take place relatively slowly in vitreous humor. The results may aid in the diagnosis of conditions or diseases in certain deaths due to diabetic ketoacidosis, dehydration, renal failure, shaken-baby syndrome, asphyxiation, and others.

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