Diatom analysis: Reviewing the strengths, weaknesses, and impacts of modern research

Exploration of the Science, Strengths, Weaknesses, and the Future


  • Jacob Caine Simon Fraser University


            The purpose of this paper is to review the science underpinning diatom analysis and its ability to help determine death by drowning in a forensic context. This article evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of diatom analysis and looks at recent research to discern whether or not the scientific techniques still have value today. Although weaknesses exist (diatoms can be introduced into bodies through a variety of ways before death, passively enter tissues during the decomposition process, may not be found in some cases of drowning, and has issues regarding false-positive tests and sensitivity when environmental concentrations are low), it will be seen that modern research has addressed many concerns and that accuracy of analysis is continuing to improve. It will be shown that the strengths (environmental specificity, seasonal variability, significant quantitative differences between drowned and non-drowned victims) combined with the fact that diatoms being found in bone marrow is one of the only answers to get a definitive diagnosis of death by drowning, that diatom analysis still has an important role to play in forensics today.