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Tissue gas is a complication of decomposition that can arise in people who sustained penetrating injuries or trauma before death. An organism called Clostridium perfringens, which is normally found in the human body, runs amok because the immune system is no longer functional. This anaerobic organism produces a strong-smelling gas that causes the body to swell and discolor. When touched, the body may make a crackling or bubbling sound, and incisions can release a foul-smelling flood of gas.
People who work with the bodies of the deceased may need to prepare for tissue gas in some cases. Pathologists, medical examiners, and morgue personnel can encounter it, and it also can become a problem for embalmers and funeral technicians. One issue with tissue gas is that the organism can jump from body to body, infecting other bodies stored in a facility. In addition to controlling the issue in the original case, it’s also important to clean and sterilize the area so it doesn’t spread.
Some risk factors for developing tissue gas can include a history of gangrene, significant ulceration, surgery, or necrotizing fasciitis before death. These patients have entry wounds that can allow C. perfrinigens to travel through the tissue. Drowning victims and people who sustained traumatic injuries like open fractures can also be at risk. Their composition will be accelerated, and can be accompanied by a greenish color and rapid marbling that may spread much more quickly than usual.
In an autopsy facility, tissue gas can make it difficult to evaluate a body to determine the cause of death and collect information. The pathologist needs to collect tissue samples and other data while keeping other bodies in the facility safe from the bacteria. Once the autopsy is finished and the body is released, the pathologist may warn an embalmer that it is a tissue gas case and may pose some problems in the preparation for burial.
Embalmers typically need to increase the amount and concentration of embalming fluid they use in order to fully eradicate the bacteria and control the decomposition. They also add antibacterial compounds to the fluid so the bacteria stop multiplying. Some may choose multiple injection sites to ensure the fluid is fully distributed throughout the body, including in the soft brain tissue, which is a favorite spot of C. perfringens once it starts to spread through the body. Embalmers may also recommend holding services quickly in order to bury or cremate the body before the bacteria have a chance to start growing again.