In late 1996, visitors to the Erie County Courthouse (Erie, PA) were becoming ill and nauseated from rancid fumes emanating from the attached morgue. In some instances, county employees had to be sent home. Moreover, the problem was reported both in state newspapers and on national television news shows.

David Linaman, PE, CIPE, principal of Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates (Butler, PA,, noticed the media attention, and he called Chief Deputy Coroner Donald Dunford. Linaman’s company had already executed a complete redesign of the morgue and pathology department at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and it was brought on board to find a comprehensive solution.

Problem Six Feet Under

Erie County Coroner Merle Wood recounts that, previously, “Autopsies were performed in local Erie hospitals or in Allegheny County. As volume increased, area hospitals declined to continue this service, prompting Erie County to hire a full-time forensic pathologist and perform autopsies at the morgue facility.” Surrounding wooded areas and proximity to Lake Erie compounded the odor problem, since many of the deceased were brought to the facility in advanced states of decomposition.

The morgue, confined to the lower level of the courthouse, had limited exhaust options. Because autopsies were not performed on site at the time of initial morgue construction, it was not designed to handle the special ventilation needs of forensic pathology. Consequently, odors escaped through elevator shafts, ventilation ducts, ceiling cavities, and other airflow access points.

After conducting a site visit and assessment, Linamen concluded that odors were permeating the lay-in ceiling in the morgue and then being transmitted through the ceiling cavity and building airshafts, as a result of stack effect and the pumping action of the elevator.

“Given my assessment, I recommended a plan that would seal the morgue from the rest of the building, increase exhaust airflow, and eliminate the odor problems,” Linamen recalls.

Linamen proposed the following remedies to seal the morgue, create a vacuum, and upgrade the ventilation system to carry odors out and away from the structure:

  • A new monolithic gypsum wall board ceiling in the morgue area, with sealed light fixtures and new hvac grilles;
  • Extension of the existing perimeter walls surrounding the morgue area to the underside of the first-floor deck above;
  • A new downdraft autopsy table, which was paramount in helping remove fumes and odors. Gases at table-top level are pulled down and away before they can be inhaled or permeate the room;
  • A new dedicated exhuast fan and duct work for the morgue area; and
  • General containment installations including a seamless floor, new doors with gaskets, caulked joints, and sealed light fixtures.

As indicated by the recommendations above, the project was anticipated to entail extensive revision and remodeling. Nevertheless, given the extent of the problem and the uproar surrounding it, the project was completed in a quite expedient fashion. The work was completed within a matter of weeks, and the project cost was held to approximately $60,000.

The Final Nail in the Coffin

Since the problem was addressed a year ago, the morgue has not provoked a single complaint from neighbors. In fact, it now provides autopsy services for nine northwestern Pennsylvania counties, in addition to Erie.

In a report that reeks of understatement, Wood reports that “Everybody that works in the autopsy room appreciates the change.”