Environmental causes of death

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This article deals with environmental causes of death.

They include:



  • Reddening of exposed skin areas "frost erythema" - classic feature.
  • Wischnewski spots (AKA Leopard spots) - classic feature.
    • Brown/black spots of the gastric mucosa ~ 0.1-0.4 cm; thought to represent pre-mortem/perimortem hemorrhage.[2]
  • Paradoxical undressing; decedent has removed clothes due to perception of being too hot.[3]





  • Findings are non-specific.[4]
  • Short survival:
    • +/-Petechiae - serosal (pleural, epicardial, pericardial) and cerebral periventricular.
    • +/-Cerebral edema.
  • Long survival:



  • May be missed - as can be subtle.
  • Usually causes death by cardiac arrhythmia.
  • Typically accidents.[5]
  • Occasionally used to suicide.[6]

Gross features

  • Usually burns on the hands - brown.
    • Typically absent if it happened in a wet environment.[7]
  • Focal injury suggestive of high voltage (> 1000 V).
  • Lichtenberg figure = fern-like figure.




See also


  1. E. E. Türk, J. P. Sperhake, K. Pueschel and Michael Tsokos (2005). "An approach to the evaluation of fatal hypothermia". Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology 1 (1): 31–35. http://www.springerlink.com/content/n785314u75m71j8h/fulltext.pdf.
  2. Tsokos M, Rothschild MA, Madea B, Rie M, Sperhake JP (March 2006). "Histological and immunohistochemical study of Wischnewsky spots in fatal hypothermia". Am J Forensic Med Pathol 27 (1): 70–4. doi:10.1097/01.paf.0000202716.06378.91. PMID 16501354. http://journals.lww.com/amjforensicmedicine/Abstract/2006/03000/Histological_and_Immunohistochemical_Study_of.14.aspx.
  3. Turk EE (June 2010). "Hypothermia". Forensic Sci Med Pathol 6 (2): 106–15. doi:10.1007/s12024-010-9142-4. PMID 20151230.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Nixdorf-Miller A, Hunsaker DM, Hunsaker JC (September 2006). "Hypothermia and hyperthermia medicolegal investigation of morbidity and mortality from exposure to environmental temperature extremes". Arch. Pathol. Lab. Med. 130 (9): 1297–304. PMID 16948514. http://www.archivesofpathology.org/doi/pdf/10.1043/1543-2165%282006%29130%5B1297%3AHAHMIO%5D2.0.CO%3B2.
  5. Wick, R.; Gilbert, JD.; Simpson, E.; Byard, RW. (Apr 2006). "Fatal electrocution in adults--a 30-year study.". Med Sci Law 46 (2): 166-72. PMID 16683472.
  6. Dokov, W. (May 2009). "Forensic characteristics of suicide by electrocution in Bulgaria.". J Forensic Sci 54 (3): 669-71. doi:10.1111/j.1556-4029.2009.01002.x. PMID 19298463.
  7. Karger, B.; Süggeler, O.; Brinkmann, B. (May 2002). "Electrocution--autopsy study with emphasis on electrical petechiae.". Forensic Sci Int 126 (3): 210-3. PMID 12062943.