In the wake of large-scale disasters like hurricane Katrina, recovery efforts can take weeks, and tracking human corpses becomes both technically and logistically challenging.
Technically, because it may take months between the initial sighting of a corpse and final internment, during which time the body may move multiple times and begin to disintegrate. And logistically because tracking hundreds of bodies is best done computationally, not by hand.
VeriChip Corp. donated over 500 RFID chips to counties in Mississippi to help identify human remains, and relief workers who found a body could then insert a chip that would describe the bodys appearance and location. That information could then be checked against information provided by people missing loved ones.
Gary Hargrove, coroner of Mississippis Harrison County, praised the system, saying the chips are sturdier than the conventional toe tags and dont require body bags to be opened as often.
Not surprisingly, VeriChip quickly developed a new application, VeriTrace, that can be used in the same way. Along with the chips, VeriTrace comes with database software and digital cameras for recording images of the remains.
Since VeriChip is a business, it much prefers to sell systems to communities before disaster strikes, not scramble to find officials to accept donations once a tragedy has occurred.
VeriChip has experience creating new markets, said spokesperson John Procter. Thousands of pet owners have had their cats and dogs chipped, and scanning lost pets for the markers is becoming routine.
The key is getting a critical mass of people to participate. Initially, animal care facilities didnt want scanning equipment because few pets were chipped; pet owners didnt want chips because few facilities had scanners.
However, the market for technology to track human remains is a hodgepodge, said Robert Shaler, the forensic scientist who led efforts to identify remains after the World Trade Center attacks.
"[The Department of Health and Human Services] has some mandate for identification, but no funds for getting it done. Homeland Security has no mandate."
And the entity responsible for identifying victims varies with the nature of the disaster, he said. In local tragedies, communities are responsible. In airplane disasters and terrorist attacks, the gruesome job can fall to insurance companies.
Shaler thinks RFID technology could correct misidentified bodies and verify uncertain identifications. "If its in a mass grave, you cant find the body again, but with an RFID tag you could locate the body," he said.
But hes skeptical about how it would get done when so many entities share responsibility, and he thinks its a task that the federal government should shoulder. "Who would pay for it is always the question," he said.
Clearly, VeriChip is thinking along these lines. It recently recruited former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson to the firms board of directors.
There are a few religious groups that object to "chipping" human remains, but its not nearly as heated as the controversy over implanting chips in living humans. For applications in live people, the government should make sure regulations and limitations are in place to ensure privacy and prevent abuse.
But for unidentified deceased humans, the opposite is true. The government should clear a path for VeriChip (or any competent company) to make sure its technology is ready when it is unfortunately, but inevitably, needed.
M.L. Baker is health IT and biotechnology editor for Ziff Davis Internets Enterprise Edit group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.