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It all started at a hackathon organised by THE Port at CERN’s IdeaSquare in 2014. The event combined technology and science to develop solutions to pressing humanitarian challenges, and it was here that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) challenged participants to improve the current body bag design.

A deceased person’s body holds strong symbolism in various cultures, in relation to funerary customs, as it is used as a direct representation of the individual. Its absence, such as in disaster scenarios, may cause legal and sociocultural issues. This absence also creates uncertainty regarding the life status of their absent close one. Thus, the identification of bodies in forensic cases is considered extremely important in providing closure. Consequently, body bags play a vital role in early coordination stages of disaster victim identification as it is a tool that allows for storage, isolation and transportation of the body of a deceased person.

Designing the first Better Body Bag during the THE Port Hackathon at IdeaSquare (CERN, Geneva, November 2014)

Since its inception, the standard body bag has been subject to minor modifications and so far has limited adaptability in forensic contexts. Particularly in unrefrigerated conditions, which is often the case in humanitarian settings. The request to redesign the body bag came from the forensic unit of the ICRC, in order to improve the success rate of victim identification in natural disasters and war. The multidisciplinary team of individuals who met at CERN’s hackathon event has now expanded into an association with a full-scale project. The initial design was supported by the ICRC who encouraged the pursuit of the development of an improved prototype, working towards its industrial manufacturing.

The design is a new forensic technology that improves the current standard body bag, while remaining affordable and functional, termed the Better Body Bag (BBB). The primary goal of the Better Body Bag is to delay decomposition and improve visual identification by influencing three key variables:

  1. Firstly, the better body bag can hold a vacuum. The mechanism that is used limits the body from interacting with an exterior environment, including oxygen, restricting aerobic bacterial proliferation or insects. This vacuum is easily created with the help of a standard hand pump that does not require electrical infrastructure.
  2. Secondly, it controls the temperature inside the bag by having an outer light-deflecting layer.
  3. Thirdly, it controls bodily fluids associated with decomposition by using a superabsorber pad, preventing any leaking in the rare event of a puncture.

Additionally, it aims to improve the working conditions of humanitarian actors that manage the dead after catastrophes or armed conflicts. The bag has a closing mechanism that provides a hermetic seal, barrier to gases, odours and organisms that can emanate from inside the bag. An additional improvement of the BBB can be seen in its practicality in forensic procedures by supporting the handling, documentation, and identification of the deceased. A patented foil makes the bag 30% lighter than the existing model. Furthermore, this design decreases the likelihood of ruptures and punctures.

Designing the first Better Body Bag during the THE Port Hackathon at IdeaSquare (CERN, Geneva, November 2014)

Preliminary biological and load testing, undertaken by the forensic department of the International Committee of the Red Cross who have been financially supportive and to whom the first 100 prototype bags were provided, demonstrates that the bag successfully held a vacuum and slowed decomposition. A peer-reviewed research study is underway, in association with the Taphonomic Research in Anthropology: Centre for Experimental Studies of the University of Central Lancashire, to verify results and explore the full potential of the better body bag. The Taphonomic research will focus on molecular as well as whole body preservation in the new body bags using three time interval points in two separate locations across two continents with differing temperature points (United Kingdom and Thailand). A future blogpost from us will provide further details on the process.

Through this HIF-funded project, SSRa will now focus on industrial manufacturing of the Better Body Bag, where the first 10,000 bags deployed in the field will be specifically monitored by ICRC. Regular feedback and improvement circles will ensure optimal performance and usability in the real deployment conditions.

We look forward to advancing in this project and sharing with you, in the form of blog posts, the reflections we make along the way.

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