Microscopes in Forensic Epidemiology- An Overview

What is forensic epidemiology?

Forensic epidemiology is a combination of the principles of epidemiology and forensic medicine. It aims to determine how a disease or illness was established, where an outbreak began, and how it spread.

Scientist with Microscope

Image Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com

It is also concerned with gaining insights into the control of disease, as well as looking into a multitude of factors that are associated with human health.

One of its main applications is in eliminating the ambiguity of how health-related events occurred, to determine causality for both civil lawsuits and criminal cases.

Using evidence, forensic epidemiologists generate probabilistic conclusions regarding the association between an antecedent harmful exposure and a particular disease outcome to a person or a group of people.

Cases of medical negligence or those pertaining to the apparent adverse effects of a pharmaceutical drug, medical device, or consumer product, as well as cases investigating automobile accident-related injuries or deaths may all draw on forensic epidemiology to provide evidence, either for or against.

The use of microscopes in forensic epidemiology

Microscopes form the foundation of a forensic epidemiological study. Much of the work that forensic epidemiologists conduct relates to tracking the presence of bacteria, microbes, and other molecules, organic or not within samples. Often the best tool for this job is a microscope.

For example, quite often forensic epidemiology may be concerned with investigating the source of a strain of bacteria, such as E. coli or salmonella.

To do this, forensic epidemiologists will investigate the food that is under suspicion with microscopes, clarifying whether it has been contaminated or not.

This data can be used to determine the source of certain strains, which may be a key piece of information in a court case.

It can also be vital in preventing the contamination from infecting more people and causing an outbreak, as well as for revealing groups of individuals who may have come into contact with dangerous bacteria.

Microscopes may also be employed in the surveillance of disease and cause of death. One role of forensic epidemiologists is to evaluate large datasets establishing baselines of disease and illness in particular regions.

This enables them to detect spikes in the pattern which could signify bio-contamination or bioterrorism. While microscopes are not the only technique used to help establish these baselines, they are useful in helping to establish the cause of death in certain cases.

Pharmacovigilance is a particular area of forensic epidemiology that is concerned with identifying adverse reactions associated with pharmaceutical drug use.

This can be difficult to determine; however, microscopes can be used in conjunction with other investigative methods to study the abundance of a drug within a tissue sample, or to determine the development of particular side effects, and even cellular damage.

Medical negligence claims are also aided by the use of microscopes in forensic epidemiology. While they are not the single method used to determine cases of negligence, they are used alongside several other methods to gather evidence either supporting or disproving medical malpractice.

Microscopes are also relied on to help investigate criminal acts. For example, homicide investigations often use microscopes to help identify trace evidence, such as fibers, by comparing the evidence left at the scene with known samples.

Scanning electron microscopes are also often employed to investigate biological samples left at the scene. This evidence can be used to place a suspect at the scene of the crime or identify a victim. Microscopes can also be used in analyzing fingerprints.

Overall, forensic epidemiology is a vital tool for health-related civil and criminal cases. Its various applications such as in surveillance, pharmacovigilance, medical negligence, criminal cases, and disease outbreaks all rely on the use of microscopes to provide evidence that elucidates the story of how disease, accident, or criminal act occurred.


  • Goodman, R., Munson, J., Dammers, K., Lazzarini, Z. and Barkley, J. (2003). Forensic Epidemiology: Law at the Intersection of Public Health and Criminal Investigations. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 31(4), pp.684-700. journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1748-720X.2003.tb00135.x
  • Freeman, M., Rossignol, A. and Hand, M. (2008). Forensic Epidemiology: A systematic approach to probabilistic determinations in disputed matters. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 15(5), pp.281-290. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18511002
  • Koehler, S. and Freeman, M. (2013). Forensic epidemiology: a method for investigating and quantifying specific causation. Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology, 10(2), pp.217-222. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24272789

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 17, 2020

Sarah Moore

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Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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