Microbial biodegradation of various classes of ignitable liquids in forensic soil samples
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Identification of ignitable liquids in fire debris analysis using pattern recognition is an important step in determining the nature of a suspicious fire. Complex mixtures that make up ignitable liquids are susceptible to microbial degradation when fire debris evidence is presented in the form of soil. Microbial degradation results in a selective metabolism of certain classes of compounds required for identification of an ignitable liquid. Various ignitable liquids that may be used to initiate or propagate a fire contain different classes of organic compounds. These include normal alkanes, branched alkanes, cycloalkanes, aromatics, terpenes, and others. In this work, microbial degradation of nine ignitable liquids in soil was evaluated over a period of twenty-six days. The degradation of aromatic compounds in gasoline was faster with toluene and C2-alkylbenzenes than in C3-alkylbenzenes. However, the overall loss of aromatics made gasoline chromatographically unidentifiable. The complete loss of n-alkanes in medium and petroleum distillates resulted in patterns that resembled naphthenic-paraffinic products. Normal alkanes were more susceptible to microbial degradation than isoalkanes, which was specifically demonstrated in medium and heavy petroleum distillates. In diesel, pristane and phytane remained prominent in comparison to the normally prevalent n-alkanes, which could no longer be detected post-degradation. The degradation of isoalkanes and cycloalkanes was evaluated in a naphthenic-paraffinic product. Isoalkanes were degraded significantly faster than cycloalkanes. The remaining peaks in the naphthenic-paraffinic pattern consisted solely of cycloalkane compounds, and could no longer be classified as a naphthenic-paraffinic product. The terpene compounds in turpentine were also observed to be susceptible to degradation by microorganisms. The loss of !-pinene, limonene, and camphene was significantly noticeable in comparison to other terpene compounds, such as 1,4-cineole. Microbial biodegradation in different soil types was investigated. The difference in soil texture can affect the rate of metabolism of ignitable liquids due to the variance of available oxygen, nutrients and mobility of the microbial population. The degradation of isoalkanes, cycloalkanes, aromatics and heavier normal alkanes was faster in clay, whereas normal alkanes of lower molecular weight were degraded more readily in sand. There has been no explanation of this occurrence within the scientific literature, however it could be hypothesized that the difference in microbial flora and water saturation levels could affect the selective degradation between the two soil types. Fire debris evidence is often stored for long periods of time before analysis due to case backlogs. The storage condition of arson-related soil samples is a sensitive subject. If evidence, containing soil, is stored at room temperature, petroleum compounds in any ignitable liquid residues that are present will be degraded within a week. Therefore, it is important to freeze or refrigerate soil samples. The storage of both refrigerated and frozen soil samples containing gasoline were evaluated over six months. Less than 6% of the aromatic compounds distinctive of gasoline remained when stored at 5 °C, while minimal change was observed in the same compounds when stored at -15 °C. Microbial degradation of petroleum-based ignitable liquids is advantageous from the environmental perspective. However, within the forensic community the effect of microbial action could lead to misclassification or inability to identify the presence of an ignitable liquid in fire debris evidence.