The utility and validity of the diatom test for drowning was studied using a retrospective analysis of 771 cases of drowning mostly from Ontario, Canada, over the period 1977 to 1993. In this article (part one), the utility of the test was assessed using an analysis of test outcomes. In the companion article (part two), the validity of the test was assessed by analyzing the relationship between test outcome and characteristics of diatoms in the bone marrow and samples of putative drowning medium. In the present study, freshwater drownings accounted for 738 of the cases and 33 cases were drownings in bathtubs, pools, or toilets. Diatoms were recovered from the femoral bone marrow of 205 cases (28%) of freshwater drowning and four cases (12%) of domestic water drowning. There was a monthly variation in the frequency of positive test outcomes that could not be explained by seasonal differences in the total number of drownings. However, the monthly variation was strongly correlated with the periodic cycle of diatom blooms that occurs in freshwater. Positive diatom tests were characterized by a limited number of distinctive diatom species per case, and a restricted quantity and size range of diatom frustules. These results indicate that the diatom test for drowning will identify approximately one in three victims of freshwater drowning and may be useful in the assessment of deaths occurring in bathtubs. The correlation of the outcome of the diatom test for drowning with diatom blooms provides further evidence for the reliability of the test.
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