Environmental Forensic Files

By Taylor, David A. | Environmental Health Perspectives, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Environmental Forensic Files


Taylor, David A., Environmental Health Perspectives


If the spate of recent television shows focused on investigating crimes is any indication, forensic science has taken hold of the public consciousness. A standing-room-only crowd at environmental forensics sessions at the 17th Annual International Conference on Soils, Sediments, and Water held in October 2003 in Amherst, Massachusetts, proved the forensics bug has infected scientists, too. In this case, proponents say environmental forensics, which combines approaches from several disciplines to analyze cases of environmental contamination, brings a new level of sophistication to environmental science and the assessment of health risks.

Environmental forensics uses investigative tools from fields as varied as analytical chemistry, isotopic analysis, epidemiology, toxicology, geology, history, and statistics, with technologies ranging from aerial photography to gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and other chemical fingerprinting methods. The aim, often, is to characterize environmental problems and resolve litigation regarding how they occurred.

"Forensics is rekindling the curiosity in environmental science," says Eric Cherry, environmental forensics practice leader with the Ohio-based consulting firm of Hull & Associates. In recent decades, while the legislation of environmental standards has established needed benchmarks, it has also "commodified" the general environmental assessment field, he says; environmental consultants are often asked merely to measure samples against government standards rather than interpret actual risks, pathways, or longterm flare. For Cherry, forensics marks an attempt to strengthen the remediation process by building techniques for identifying appropriate solutions into the diagnosis of a problem.

Experts in environmental forensics have applied its techniques in court cases to establish the source of a pollutant and thus determine who is responsible for paying for remediation. This can require unraveling complex time sequences of when pollutants entered the environment and untangling multiple plumes of contaminants. For instance, chemical fingerprinting can be used to distinguish among different petroleum products in a water sample and determine the contribution of each chemical (and possibly--for example, through the identification of specific additives and other components--different corporations) in a spill.

In one case, Stephen Mudge, a professor of ocean sciences at the University of Wales, Bangor, is studying the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to assess whether Exxon is liable for ongoing effects on the ocean environment. …

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