Environmental forensics is similar to criminal forensics, investigating the what, when, and where through legally defensible methods. In environmental forensics, the focus is on environmental issues, such as the causes of contamination or the sources of pollution. By applying high-end analytical techniques to environmental contamination incidents, the source of the contamination can be determined and those who are at fault can be held legally responsible. Identifying the source of the contamination can also help establish a plan for remediation of the problem.
But isn’t petroleum all the same?
The most pressing environmental concern is often over petroleum and petroleum products, such as pipeline spills or remediation of gas stations. From the end-user perspective, it may seem that all petroleum products are the same. However, at the chemical level, this is not the case. Petroleum is a mixture of hydrocarbons that result from the breakdown of organic material over millions of years. The specific composition is determined by the parent kerogen that is the source of the recovered petroleum. Further, the manufacturing processes are specific to the producer, altering the composition of the product depending on who produced it, when it was produced, and where it was produced. All of these together result in a “chemical fingerprint” that can be used to identify where a source of contamination arose from.
How is a chemical fingerprint determined?
A chemical fingerprint is established by using gas chromatograph mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to separate and quantify the compounds present in a mixture. The result is a chromatograph with numerous peaks that are characteristic of the specific contaminant. That is chromatograph can then be compared to other mixtures from potential sources. The source will have an identical chromatograph to the sample.
What about biomarkers?
To further identify the source of the contamination, petroleum biomarkers are evaluated. Petroleum biomarkers, colloquially referred to as “molecular fossils”, are compounds that are very similar in structure to their original biological molecules. These compounds can be used to track when and where a petroleum source was formed. They can track the migration of the petroleum through the environment. Further, they can give an indication to the biodegradation of the sample. Different petroleum hydrocarbons biodegrade differently. The degradation of petroleum biomarkers can indicate a timeline for the spill event.
Pursuing an Environmental Forensics Investigation
What sets environmental forensics apart from standard environmental testing or standard metabolomics testing is that there is a legal component to it. Because these results could end up before the court it is important for the testing laboratory to adhere to specific protocols regarding the collection, submission, and processing of the samples. When a client is looking to pursue an environmental forensics investigation, we will sit down with them to advise them on what needs to be done in order to ensure that samples are collected, transported, and handed to the lab appropriately.
One of the biggest challenges faced in environmental forensics involves source identification. In order to be sure confident that the unknown sample came from a specific source, a known sample from the suspected source is required. This can sometimes be challenging to obtain.
Like criminal forensics, there are always limitations to what our experts are able to state with confidence. However, our commitment to our clients is to provide them with reliable, trusted data that can withstand legal examination. As a neutral, third party responsible for the analysis, we are committed to be clear about what the limits of our data are and ensuring that our conclusions fall only within what can be supported scientifically.
Environmental and Clinical Packages