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Age Estimation Under Fire

While the use of age estimation techniques to help the identification process of deceased individuals is well accepted, their use in determining the age of living persons is highly controversial.

The Royal College of Radiologists, the British Dental Association and others all state that the process is both unscientific and ethically wrong. Here is what the BDA say in their position paper on the subject:

The BDA is vigorously opposed to the use of dental x-rays to determine whether asylum seekers have reached 18. This is an inaccurate method for assessing this age. We also believe that it is inappropriate and unethical to take radiographs of people when there is no health benefit for them.

They go on further to state that the multitude of confounding factors in relation to ageing mean that the development of the dentition can never be considered as accurate:

Estimating age for an individual will have a large margin of error because children mature at different rates. Some children mature early, some later and this range is small in early childhood but can be considerable for the last developing tooth, the third molar. In an early maturing individual the mandibular third molar root might be complete at 16 years of age, while a late maturing individual will reach this stage six or seven years later. Using root formation of this tooth to estimate age will therefore have a large margin of error.

In an excellent piece in The Conversation, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Binghamton University, State University of New York explains why the use of such techniques should be considered illegal.

Here is an excellent article stating what can happen when dentistry is used to send Children to adult dentition centres – even when the age range includes the possibility that they are a child:

Here’s how ICE sent children seeking asylum to adult detention centers


In the this Vice News article you can read all about ICE’s use of the technique in Texas, and the dubious science underpinning it. While the forensic dentists involved state that they are not determining age, their one page, proforma reports, are used to send vulnerable children to adult facilities and place them at significant risk.  Shifting their work from discredited bitemark analysis, these odontologists seem desperate for revenue – and have now moved into another area of weak science, with poor statistical treatment, and dubious reporting techniques.

We expect to see more challenges in this area over coming weeks.


About Odont1

Odont1 is a seasoned forensic dentist, researcher and educator with an interest in progressing the science of the discipline while retaining those elements that are evidence based and useful to the judicial system at any level.

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