Here's a toothy problem

Here's a toothy problem

Forensic dentist called in to work on Tangmo case pleas for more state help for her profession

"The results are on a par with fingerprints and DNA testing," said forensic dentist Pisha Pittayapat. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)

Pisha Pittayapat, one of Thailand's very few forensic dentists, has urged the government to support forensic odontology so there will be more experts in the application of dentistry for the benefit of legal proceedings.

Ms Pisha is part of a panel of forensic experts set up recently by the Justice Ministry to review the autopsy details of TV actress Pattarathida "Tangmo" Patcharaveerapong who fell off a speedboat and drowned in the Chao Phraya River in Nonthaburi on Feb 24.

The move came after lawyer Kritsana Sriboonpimsuay submitted a request on behalf of Tangmo's mother to the ministry's Central Institute of Forensic Medicine.

The purpose was to clear up any doubts about what happened to the actress's body, including a burn mark on her chest, the condition of her teeth and head, and a deep wound on her thigh.

Ms Pisha, a forensic odontologist from Chulalongkorn Hospital, was responsible for examining the oral cavity and confirmed there were no broken teeth.

Ms Pisha received a bachelor's degree in dental surgery (first-class honours) from Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Dentistry. She also obtained a graduate diploma in clinical science in oral and maxillofacial radiology from the university.

She went on to receive a master's degree in forensic odontology and a doctorate in biomedical sciences from the University of Leuven in Belgium.

Ms Picha is currently a lecturer at the department of radiology of Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Dentistry.

"A role model who inspired me to take up forensic dentistry is Pol Maj Gen Surasak Joycharoon, a forensic expert at Police General Hospital, who I had a chance to study and work with, particularly when the 2004 tsunami hit.

"At the time, I was a graduate fresh from university and volunteered to help with the identification of people killed by the tsunami at Wat Yan Yao in Phangnga. The dental identification process was instrumental in identifying and sending many bodies of foreigners back home,'' Ms Pisha said.

She said there are several forensic methods for establishing the identity of dead bodies, such as DNA testing, fingerprint examination and forensic dentistry.

However, dental examination is rarely applied if the bodies can still be recognised and identified.

Forensic dentistry will play a key role when bodies are damaged or decomposed beyond recognition. Dental identification will deliver results with the same accuracy as DNA testing, she said.

"The results from dental identification are on a par with fingerprints and DNA testing. The procedure involves examining the oral cavity, and taking an X-ray and photos of all the teeth. The person's dental treatment history is also required for comparison," she said.

A specialist in dental radiography, Ms Pisha said that information regarding dental restoration, such as dental fillings, dental crowns, dental implants and dental braces is helpful in the identification process.

"Actually, forensic dentists will be able to join the identification process only at the request of other forensic pathologists.

"We are often called in when the bodies are unrecognisable, such as when a fire breaks out, people are killed in a house and an insurance company wants to determine if those killed are the policy-holders,'' Ms Pisha said.

Dental examination would be tougher if the body is badly burned in the fire and the teeth exposed to extreme heat, making them brittle.

Any attempt to open the mouth or move the body could cause the teeth to break or shatter easily, which would necessitate an X-ray of the teeth instead, Ms Pisha said.

"We have to take about 14 to 18 radiographs and the procedure takes one to two hours for each case. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, we spent several days performing x-rays of the teeth. We could identify and send home more than 800 bodies of deceased foreigners. Today, the procedure is much faster and the equipment is more advanced,'' Ms Pisha said.

She said that forensic odontology has played a key role in solving crimes in several countries, such as the case of American serial killer Ted Bundy.

Before his execution in 1989, Bundy admitted to killing more than 30 young women across several US states in the 1970s.

Bundy bit one of his victims and his bite mark left on the victim later proved a match with his teeth. This was used as evidence leading to his conviction, Ms Pisha said.

She said the number of forensic dentists is limited worldwide and there are only a few institutes teaching forensic odontology across the world.

The university in Belgium no longer offers the course of forensic odontology because few students were interested. It is still being taught in the US, Australia and Scotland.

There is no such course in Thailand, Ms Pisha said.

She said Thailand's dental identification technology is no different from that in other countries, though the number of forensic dentists in the country is small, with only 24 of them nationwide.

But a Thai student in forensic odontology will graduate from the University of Dundee in Scotland shortly to add another name to the list, she added.

Forensic odontology is as important as other branches of medicine and forensic science, she said, urging the government to support it by providing scholarships to students to study abroad so they can put it to good use for the identification process.

"Thailand should be prepared in every respect so there will be enough forensic dentists to lend a helping hand," Ms Pisha said.

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