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Hawaii’s Climate Speeds Up the Decomposition Process

The recent Mauna Loa eruption on the Big Island was a strong reminder that as stable as our islands seem to be, they are constantly being remade. Life pours forth from the ground and returns back to it in a continuous cycle similar to the waves rolling over the sand then fading back into the ocean.

At Bio X Hawaii, we get an intimate look at this cycle of life every time we clean up after an unattended death. Whether someone died alone in their home or is found outside, we go in to clean up whatever body fluids have been left behind after a body is removed by the coroner. This protects the structure and the health of other people and animals in the area. Here in Hawaii, the decomposition process typically happens at a faster pace than other environments so the work needed can be extensive depending on how long the person has been left alone.

Hawaii’s climate speeds up the decomposition process

Two major factors affecting the rate of decomposition after an organism has passed away are heat and moisture. In tropical environments such as Hawaii that have both warm air and high moisture content, a body will break down far faster than it would in a cold and dry environment such as the side of a snow-covered mountain.

When the temperature of an environment goes up, microbials such as bacteria, which are essential to the decomposition process, thrive and multiply. With more of these microbials at work both inside and outside of the body, the soft tissues will decompose faster than in colder environments where there aren’t as many microorganisms at work. With such a thriving and diverse population of these tiny organisms like we have here on the islands, bodies can be broken down quickly.

Warm weather will also spread the smell of decomposition faster and further, alerting nearby flies and other insects to come colonize the body’s cavities. In moist environments like Hawaii’s where the humidity is high, these insects are numerous and thrive on decomposing matter. It’s one of the reasons our islands are so lush and beautiful—organic matter decomposes quickly, returning the chemical building blocks back into the earth. All this moisture also keeps the body’s tissues hydrated and easier for the insects to digest.

Surroundings matter in the decomposition process

Even in a warm and moist environment, the rate at which a body breaks down and decomposes can vary significantly depending on how much access organisms have to the body. If the cadaver has direct contact with the natural environment, such as laying on the soil or in the water, the body will break down quickly. Even hanging in the air slows the process down. The tools of the decomposition process such as microorganisms and insects can’t get to the body as quickly to digest the tissue and resulting fluids. In the soil, the bacteria and insects are already there, ready to help the body decompose.

Five stages of body decomposition

After a person passes away, the chemical compounds that make up their body starts to break apart and return to the natural environment. However long a body has been left to decompose back into the earth, they all go through five stages. Depending on the environment, a body can go through these stages in a matter of days or bone fragments and hair can be found over 100,000 years later. It all depends on where the body is and what organisms have access to it. Even left in water, the body goes through the decomposition stages, just at a much faster rate.

  1. Initial Breakdown : As soon as someone dies, their organs stop working and blood stops circulating in their veins. As the body’s temperature cools to match the surrounding environment, fluids pool in the lower parts of the body and muscular tissues become rigid. Bacteria in the intestines previously kept at bay start to digest the intestinal walls and cells break down, releasing enzymes that break down the internal organs further. Most of this process happens internally and is not visible from outside the body. At the end of this stage as the body starts to give off an odor, flies find the body and lay eggs that will further devour the tissues surrounding the larva as they develop.
  2. Bloating : During the bloating stage, the bacteria in our guts produce gases as they digest internal organs and soft tissues, much as we do when we’re alive. However, without an easy outlet, gases such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen, nitrogen, and methane build up in the body, building up pressure inside the body’s structure until the gas finds openings through the mouth, nose, or anus. As the body breaks down, additional openings are created for the gas to go through that then provides even more places for insects and bacteria to process the tissues.
  3. Active Decay : As maggots, insects, and bacteria feed on the body, the soft tissue is digested at a relatively fast rate and fluids are produced that flow into the surrounding environment following the flow of gravity.
  4. Advanced Decay : By this stage, the maggots have hatched and left the body. Now, only the hair, ligaments, bones, and cartilage are left. To digest these materials, insects that can chew such as beetles and certain types of flies move in and process these thicker parts of our bodies.
  5. Dry Remains : By this stage, only the bones and some of the hair is left. As moth larvae and mites digest the hair, bones lighten in color and are eventually broken down back into the earth. If the body is in water, the bones can disintegrate altogether.

Though it can be hard to think about our bodies going through these stages, it is all a part of the cycle of life. We use the chemicals that make up our bodies for a period of time while we’re alive then, after we die, they return to their broken-down state to create something new. What we at Bio X Hawaii are here for is to make sure no one becomes sick while this process takes place.

Call Bio X Hawaii as soon as possible after an unattended death

The longer a body is left to decompose, the more damage there will be to the underlying structures from the resulting fluids. As fluids and soft body tissue follow the flow of gravity, materials such as furniture, flooring, and even the underlying structure itself can become contaminated with biohazards. Call our team as soon as possible to complete unattended death cleanup to mitigate any damage. Available 24/7, we are here when you need us.

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