Many people who overdose on opioids are found immediately or soon after at home, in a car or on the street.

Authorities quickly figure out who they are.

But others in Greater Akron and across the country may go unnoticed in the woods, inside an abandoned house or some other place out of public view for years.

Identifying skeletal remains is always challenging, but opioid use could make it more difficult because the drugs appear to change something forensic investigators depend on — bones.

Janna Andronowski, a forensic anthropologist and biologist at the University of Akron, said the microscopic structure of bones of a 20-year-old opioid user may appear to be from someone in their 50s or older.

If scientists like her unknowingly report such a misleading clue on age to law enforcement, investigators may never figure out the identity of the dead.

Andronowski aims to change that with new research.

She received a two-year grant of $370,153 from the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice to study the effects of opioid use on bone remodeling — the body’s life-long process of formation and destruction of bone tissue.

Andronowski, working with students at UA, will use 3-D X-ray imaging technology on bone microstructure. Using their findings, she will prepare new guidelines for forensic analysis here and across the country.

Andronowski, who is from Canada, joined UA’s biology department in August 2017 and launched a bone biology lab.

There are only about 10 people in the U.S. who specialize in what she does with bone.

Beyond helping law enforcement, the science can also be used to study age-related conditions like osteoporosis and overall aging on bones.

At the start of a semester Andronowski welcomes all her new students by trying to shatter any false illusions they may have after watching television mysteries like “Bones.”

Each episode of that show focuses on the FBI bringing unidentified remains to a forensic anthropologist like Andronowski. Together, the agent and the scientist solve and fight crime.

In the real world, Andronowski said, there is no glamour or danger. Scientists are not working alongside hunky FBI agents or carrying handguns.

“It can be unsightly or even smelly,” she said.

Scientists extract clues from the bones to give law enforcement the biological sex, stature and age range of the deceased so investigators can begin narrowing their search.

Many of the skeletal remains examined by forensic anthropologists come from people who live on the fringes of society who often have a history of substance abuse and overall poor health.

Opioids have been involved in many of those cases in recent years, Andronowski said.

And even though the opioid crisis appears to have crested in Summit County, the struggle here continues.

At its peak in Summit County in 2016, 340 residents died from opioid-related overdoses. That number dropped to 269 in 2017 and plummeted last year to around 100, though toxicology tests are still pending for some cases.

Between Jan. 25-31 — the most recent weekly numbers available from Summit County Public Health — 23 people sought emergency room help here after overdosing.

It was not clear if anyone died from an overdose during that week.

Forensic anthropologists work on only a tiny fraction of all overdose deaths.

And after they send their findings to law enforcement, Andronowski said they often don’t even learn the outcome of the cases unless they are high-profile enough to reach the media.

But that’s not as important, she said, as the overarching mission.

“At the end of the day, our job is to help bring closure to people” who don’t know what happened to people they love, she said.

 

Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettABJ.