A statistical evaluation of six classes of hydrocarbons: which classes are promising for future biodegraded ignitable liquid research?
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The current methods for identifying ignitable liquid residues in fire debris are heavily based on the holistic, qualitative interpretation of chromatographic patterns with the mass spectral identification of selected peaks. The identification of neat, unweathered ignitable liquids according to ASTM 1618 using these methods is relatively straightforward for the trained analyst. The challenges in fire debris analysis arise with phenomena such as evaporation, substrate interference, and biodegradation. These phenomena result in alterations of chromatographic patterns which can lead to misclassifications or false negatives. The biodegradation of ignitable liquids is generally known to be more complex than evaporation , and proceeds in a manner that is dependent on numerous factors such as: composition of the petroleum product/ignitable liquid, structure of the hydrocarbon compound, soil type, bacterial community, the type of microbial metabolism that is occurring, and the environmental conditions surrounding in the sample. While nothing can be done to prevent the biodegradation, continued research on biodegraded ignitable liquids and the characterization of the trends observed may be able to provide insight into how an analyst can identify a biodegraded ignitable liquid residue. This research utilized normalized abundance values of select ions from pre-existing gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) data on samples from three different gasoline and diesel biodegradation studies. A total of 18 ions were selected to indicate the presence of six hydrocarbon classes (three each for alkanes, aromatics, cycloalkanes, naphthalenes, indanes, and adamantanes) based on them being either base peaks or high abundance peaks within the electron impact mass spectra of compounds within that hydrocarbon class. The loss of ion abundance over the degradation periods was assessed by creating scatter plots and performing simple linear regression analyses. Coefficient of determination values, the standard error of the estimate, the slope, and the slope error of the best fit line were assessed to draw conclusions regarding which classes exhibited desirable characteristics, relative to the other classes, such as a linear degradation, low variation in abundance within the sampling days, and a slow rate of abundance loss over the degradation period. Additional analyses included two-way analysis of the variance (ANOVA), to assess the effects of time as well as different soil type on the degradation of the hydrocarbons, stepwise multinomial logistic regressions to identify which classes were the best predictors of the type of ignitable liquid, and one-way ANOVAs to determine where the differences in the ratios of hydrocarbon classes existed within each of the ignitable liquids, as well as between the two liquids. Hydrocarbon classes identified as exhibiting characteristics such as slow and/or reliable rates of abundance loss during biodegradation are thought of as desirable for future validation studies, where specific ranges of hydrocarbon class abundance(s) may be used to identify the presence of a biodegraded ignitable liquid. Classes of hydrocarbons that have experienced biodegradation that maintain an abundance close to that of a neat, non degraded counterpart, or that reliably degrade and have predictable abundance levels given a particular period of degradation, would be instrumental in determining whether or not an unknown sample contains an ignitable liquid residue. It is the hope that these assessments will not only provide helpful information to future researchers in the field of fire debris analysis, but that they will create interest in the quantitative, statistical assessment of ignitable liquid data for detection and identification purposes.