Evaluation of commercial products as possible sources of oxygenates in fire debris samples
Chan, Wai Pok Vernon
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In fire debris analysis, substrate contribution refers to compounds present within the material collected that can interfere with the instrumental detection of ignitable liquids or contribute petroleum or alcohol-based compounds, which may complicate the interpretation. The concept of substrate contribution was brought to light by "The petroleum-laced background" by Lentini et al. focusing on commercial products (e.g. tennis shoes, magazines, etc.), the publication successfully illustrated that these products can produce chromatograms similar to those generated by the presence of petroleum-based ignitable liquids (ILs). As a result, Lentini et al. demonstrated that fire debris analysts can identify the presence of ignitable liquids without realizing the compounds in question might be the result of the manufacturing processes, and are inherent to the substrate in question. Therefore, the findings may or may not be probative. Gasoline is easily accessible and is frequently used by arsonists. As such, fire debris analysis focuses primarily on petroleum-based compounds. However, oxygenated solvents, which encompass all oxygen-containing compounds as defined by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) classification scheme, can also be used in an arson event. Despite the potential to be used as ILs, little is known regarding the recovery of these compounds. Previous thesis projects from the Biomedical Forensic Sciences program at Boston University School of Medicine explored and optimized the use of zeolites in recovering low molecular weight oxygenated ignitable liquids. An isothermal gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) method was also developed to detect these oxygenated ILs. The results from these projects show that zeolites have the potential to be used in forensic casework. Inspired by previous publications and thesis research, the goal of this project was to first develop a reference library on substrate contribution from oxygenates (e.g. ethanol, isopropanol and acetone) present in commercial products using the isothermal GC/MS methods. The development of this reference library included a specific interest in wood treatment products, considering wood is one of the most commonly submitted fire debris materials. The second stage involved an attempt at evaluating extraction efficiencies of activated charcoal strip and zeolites. The results of this project suggested that automotive and food products examined contained only acetone and ethanol respectively, while the variety of oxygenates found in household and personal care products indicated further analysis of additional products in these categories would be beneficial. Moreover, the results also reaffirmed zeolites' role in recovering oxygenated ILs in a controlled testing environment using KimWipes as a non-contributing substrate. However, the instrumental method required some modifications, as there was partial separation between ethanol and acetone. The results from applying products onto wooden blocks suggested that activated charcoal strips recovered more oxygenates than zeolites. This unexpected result prompted an investigation into the existing extraction parameters. The investigation suggested that the wooden blocks themselves were responsible for the unexpected recovery results, and future studies would be needed to understand if this recovery was substrate-specific.