Development and optimization of two applications in fire debris analysis: the characterization of environmentally friendly commercial products and fast GC/MS
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Part 1: The emergence of environmentally friendly commercial products and their impact on fire debris analysis. Environmentally friendly products (i.e. green products) are environmentally preferable choices relative to comparable commercial products. They are readily available to the public, often highly flammable, and can be used by criminals as accelerants to facilitate the start and/or spread of fire. It is critical for analysts to have an understanding of their composition and chromatographic characteristics. Green products include paint thinners, solvents, removers, and cleaning and surface preparation products. As the composition of commercial products continually change over time, the fire debris community needs to be aware of the variety of environmentally friendly ignitable liquids that could be encountered during casework. Traditionally, when fire debris analysts have been trained, they are taught that most of the ignitable liquid residues they will encounter in casework are petroleum-based products. With the increasing emergence of non-petroleum based green products in the consumer marketplace, such products may be encountered more often than ever before in fire debris evidence submitted to forensic laboratories. Analysts should become familiar with the chromatographic features of these products as neat liquids as well as when present in fire debris samples. The purpose of this study is to introduce fire debris analysts to the prevalence of green products and increase knowledge regarding a variety of green product compositions and the characteristics they exhibit when analyzed as neat liquids and in "mock" fire debris samples. Several green products were analyzed as neat liquid samples and subsequently extracted from fire debris samples using typical fire debris extraction and analysis techniques in order to familiarize fire debris analysts with the chromatographic and mass spectral features of these products. General information about different types of green commercial products, their chromatographic and mass spectral characteristics, and their interpretation will be summarized. Analytical methods were developed for the analysis of environmentally friendly products and included considerations of gas chromatography oven temperature and ramp rate, hold times, and flow rate, as well as the scan rate and range of the mass spectrometer. Analyses involving common substrates were performed, including spiking green products onto various substrates with subsequent analysis and comparison of burned and unburned samples. Part 2: Application of fast GC/MS analysis for the identification of ignitable liquids in fire debris samples. Fire debris samples that contain ignitable liquid residues undergo a two-step process of extraction, most commonly via passive adsorption elution (PAE) onto an activated carbon strip, and instrumental analysis by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. Upon completion of PAE, adsorbed compounds are eluted from the adsorbent with a suitable solvent and analyzed using (GC/MS) for the potential identification of ignitable liquid residues. A thorough evaluation of the literature revealed the average run time for gas chromatography of fire debris samples that contain hydrocarbon or petroleum based ignitable liquids to be 30 minutes. Additionally, a blank sample is run before an evidentiary sample to ensure solvent purity and to ensure any chromatographic carry over has not occurred between subsequent injections. The average run time, along with case volume, extraction times and case reviews contributes significantly to the backlog of samples to be analyzed in most crime laboratories around the country. Fast-GC/MS would significantly reduce analysis time, lower operating costs and would use less consumables. Based on a process known as pattern recognition, an initial goal of a fire debris analyst is to identify a pattern that is consistent with an ignitable liquid class. The standard method followed by most fire debris analysts use or base standard operating procedures (SOPs) on the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) E1618, which defines the classes of commercial ignitable liquids based on chemical composition and boiling point range (or volatility). This study was conducted to optimize current methods of ignitable liquid detection and to optimize fast-GC/MS conditions for the identification of ignitable liquids in fire debris samples. Additionally, this study was conducted to determine if fast-GC/MS can reduce chromatographic separation times without sacrificing peak resolution and subsequently allow for ignitable liquid discrimination. Method development included considerations of flow rate, initial GC oven temperature, ramp rate, and mid and end temperature hold times. Fast-GC/MS conditions were tested on neat ignitable liquids from all nine ASTM E1618 classes. Optimizing fast-GC/MS method parameters led to an increase in sample throughput in comparison to traditional GC/MS methods. As a result, the GC/MS identification of ignitable liquids and their residues was performed in a quarter of the amount of time when compared to traditional methods.