News reports covering the earthquake in Turkey have emphasized the health dangers posed by the decomposing bodies of its victims. The Turkish government is digging mass graves, and Muslim clerics have suspended Islamic burial rules so that the country can dispose of corpses more quickly. Do these bodies endanger public health?
The rotting corpses of earthquake victims are a “negligible” threat to public health, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
A corpse is only a danger to public health if the victim died of an infectious disease. (In that case, the disease organisms can infect living people who come in contact with the cadaver.) But when someone dies of trauma, as most earthquake victims did, the decomposition process is harmless, if disgusting. Bacteria within the body–especially E. coli from the gut–immediately start to consume the flesh. Maggots hatched from eggs laid in the corpse also eat the cadaver, as can wasps, beetles, and other insects. Larger animals such as birds, rats, and dogs pick at unguarded corpses.
The bacteria involved in decomposition are not dangerous, because living people already carry identical germs in their own bodies. The maggots and other insects, though revolting, also constitute no threat to public health. Rats do host fleas, which can transmit typhus, typhoid fever, plague, and other diseases. But rats endanger public health wherever they mingle with people: They are no more harmful when they feed on corpses than at any other time.
Despite ancient fears of death’s “miasma,” the foul odor emitted by the body as it rots is innocuous.
Some reports hint that unburied corpses could contaminate Turkey’s water supply. This is not a serious danger. In a very few cases, bacteria from corpses can cause illness when they contaminate drinking water in large quantities. But water in Turkey is much more likely to be contaminated in other ways, especially ruptured sewer lines that dump bacteria into reservoirs and aquifers.
Because the public health threat from corpses is minimal, the WHO has even urged Turkey to allocate more resources to aiding the injured and fewer to disposing of the dead.
Explainer thanks Dr. Kenneth Iserson, author of Death to Dust and professor of surgery at the University of Arizona, and Dr. Michael Graham, medical examiner of St. Louis.