Analytical Methods and Trends in Environmental Forensics

  • Phillip M. Mach
  • Guido F. Verbeck


Environmental forensics utilizes analytical scientific approaches to address the release and sources of contamination within the environment. These methods often seek to reconstruct the history of deleterious environmental events, their sources, and amounts of chemicals released into the environment. Forensic methods couple well-regarded scientific approaches within the legal framework. This due diligence provides tangible science-based results that are important in a regulatory context, including chemical identification, transport of contaminants, and determinable operational histories. Problems environmental forensics address include identifying sources of contamination, defining time frames of emission, and coupling observed conditions to potential sources of contamination.

Environmental forensics is at the forefront of innovation, as the present analytical trend concentrates on fieldable and portable instrumentation. Efforts to bring the lab into the field result in numerous improvements to workflow and evidence collection. New technologies being implemented allow for wide breadth of analysis at the source of contamination. Fieldable laboratories overcome the inability to bring the environment of interest, as evidence, back to the lab in sufficient quantity for a thorough analysis. This results in overall cost and time saving for the performing agency. Samples are collected and be subjected to immediate preliminary screening. This new methodology has a twofold improvement, being that only samples of concern are collected and an entire site can be thoroughly and rapidly screened. Subsequent in-laboratory workload is significantly reduced as further analysis on samples has already been determined to be of evidentiary value in the field.

Portable devices have been developed to include a wide range of analytical techniques. This provides a fieldable option for a myriad of chemical analysis techniques. Spectroscopic methods include Raman, infrared, ultraviolet-visible, and cavity ringdown methods that test for a myriad of chemistries, including organic and metal contaminants. Most prevalent in the forensic community for chemical analysis are mass spectrometry (MS) methods. Portable mass spectrometers provide the precise mass analysis in the field as confirmatory tests in the laboratory. MS provides a multitude of sampling options including surface analysis with direct analysis in real time (DART) techniques, liquid introduction, and common chromatographic methods. Environmental forensics is at the forefront of implementing new technologies. Portable and fieldable devices are poised to improve analysis and provide robust analytical methods in the field. Continued efforts and targeted applications will improve forensic methods that rapidly identify and quantify contamination, determine time frames of release, and determine anthropogenic contribution.


  1. Aggarwal J, Habicht-Mauche J, Juarez C (2008) Application of heavy stable isotopes in forensic isotope geochemistry: a review. Appl Geochem 23(9):2658–2666CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Banas K et al (2010) Multivariate analysis techniques in the forensics investigation of the postblast residues by means of fourier transform-infrared spectroscopy. Anal Chem 82(7):3038–3044PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beckley L et al (2014) On-site gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) analysis to streamline vapor intrusion investigations. Environ Forensic 15(3):234–243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bell RJ et al (2012) In situ determination of porewater gases by underwater flow-through membrane inlet mass spectrometry. Limnol Oceanogr Methods 10(3):117–128Google Scholar
  5. Bell RJ et al (2015) A field-portable membrane introduction mass spectrometer for real-time quantitation and spatial mapping of atmospheric and aqueous contaminants. J Am Soc Mass Spectrom 26(2):212–223PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bell S (2009) Forensic chemistry. Annu Rev Anal Chem 2:297–319CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Ben-Jaber S et al (2016) Photo-induced enhanced Raman spectroscopy for universal ultra-trace detection of explosives, pollutants and biomolecules. Nat Commun 7:12189PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Benson S et al (2006) Forensic applications of isotope ratio mass spectrometry—a review. Forensic Sci Int 157(1):1–22PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bordajandi LR et al (2008) Comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography in the screening of persistent organohalogenated pollutants in environmental samples. J Chromatogr A 1186(1-2):312–324PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bousquet B, Sirven JB, Canioni L (2007) Towards quantitative laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy analysis of soil samples. Spectrochim Acta B At Spectrosc 62(12):1582–1589CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Chernetsova ES, Morlock GE, Revelsky IA (2011) DART mass spectrometry and its applications in chemical analysis. Russ Chem Rev 80(3):235CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Claessens M et al (2013) New techniques for the detection of microplastics in sediments and field collected organisms. Mar Pollut Bull 70(1–2):227–233PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cody RB, Laramée JA, Durst HD (2005) Versatile new ion source for the analysis of materials in open air under ambient conditions. Anal Chem 77(8):2297–2302PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Contreras JA et al (2008) Hand-portable gas chromatograph-toroidal ion trap mass spectrometer (GC-TMS) for detection of hazardous compounds. J Am Soc Mass Spectrom 19(10):1425–1434PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cox R et al (2000) The forensic analysis of soil organic by FTIR. Forensic Sci Int 108(2):107–116PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Davey NG et al (2014) Measurement of spatial and temporal variation in volatile hazardous air pollutants in Tacoma, Washington, using a mobile membrane introduction mass spectrometry (MIMS) system. J Environ Sci Health A 49(11):1199–1208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Durickovic I, Marchetti M (2014) Raman spectroscopy as polyvalent alternative for water pollution detection. IET Sci Meas Technol 8(3):122–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Eckenrode BA (2001) Environmental and forensic applications of field-portable GC-MS: an overview. J Am Soc Mass Spectrom 12(6):683–693PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Eide I, Zahlsen K (2005) A novel method for chemical fingerprinting of oil and petroleum products based on electrospray mass spectrometry and chemometrics. Energy Fuel 19(3):964–967CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fenech C et al (2012) The potential for a suite of isotope and chemical markers to differentiate sources of nitrate contamination: a review. Water Res 46(7):2023–2041PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fenech C et al (2013) An SPE LC–MS/MS method for the analysis of human and veterinary chemical markers within surface waters: an environmental forensics application. Environ Pollut 181:250–256PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Frysinger GS, Gaines RB, Reddy CM (2002) GC× GC--a new analytical tool for environmental forensics. Environ Forensic 3(1):27–34Google Scholar
  23. Gaines RB et al (1999) Oil spill source identification by comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography. Environ Sci Technol 33(12):2106–2112CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gallego J et al (2016) Insights into a 20-ha multi-contaminated brownfield megasite: an environmental forensics approach. Sci Total Environ 563:683–692PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gauch HG Jr (2012) Scientific method in brief. Cambridge University Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Giannoukos S, Brkic B, Taylor S (2016) Analysis of chlorinated hydrocarbons in gas phase using a portable membrane inlet mass spectrometer. Anal Methods 8(36):6607–6615CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Godduhn A, Duffy LK (2003) Multi-generation health risks of persistent organic pollution in the far north: use of the precautionary approach in the Stockholm convention. Environ Sci Pol 6(4):341–353CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Grabic R et al (2012) Multi-residue method for trace level determination of pharmaceuticals in environmental samples using liquid chromatography coupled to triple quadrupole mass spectrometry. Talanta 100:183–195PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hadley PW, Petrisor IG (2013) Incremental sampling: challenges and opportunities for environmental forensics. Environ Forensic 14(2):109–120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Harig R, Matz G, Rusch P (2002) Scanning infrared remote sensing system for identification, visualization, and quantification of airborne pollutants. In: Proc. SPIE 4574, Instrumentation for Air Pollution and Global Atmospheric Monitoring, 83 (February 12, 2002). doi:
  31. Harvey SD et al (2002) Blind field test evaluation of Raman spectroscopy as a forensic tool. Forensic Sci Int 125(1):12–21PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hendricks PI et al (2014) Autonomous in situ analysis and real-time chemical detection using a backpack miniature mass spectrometer: concept, instrumentation development, and performance. Anal Chem 86(6):2900–2908PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hildenbrand ZL et al (2016) Point source attribution of ambient contamination events near unconventional oil and gas development. Sci Total Environ 573:382–388PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hoang CV et al (2013) Monitoring the presence of ionic mercury in environmental water by plasmon-enhanced infrared spectroscopy. Sci Rep 3:1175PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hollas JM (2004) Modern spectroscopy, 4th edn. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  36. Howard PH, Muir DC (2010) Identifying new persistent and bioaccumulative organics among chemicals in commerce. Environ Sci Technol 44:2277PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Jjunju FPM et al (2015) Analysis of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons using desorption atmospheric pressure chemical ionization coupled to a portable mass spectrometer. J Am Soc Mass Spectrom 26(2):271–280PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Khanmohammadi M, Garmarudi AB, de la Guardia M (2012) Characterization of petroleum-based products by infrared spectroscopy and chemometrics. TrAC Trends Anal Chem 35:135–149CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Lay-Ekuakille A et al (2013) Experimental infrared measurements for hydrocarbon pollutant determination in subterranean waters. Rev Sci Instrum 84(1):015103PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lega M et al (2012) Using advanced aerial platforms and infrared thermography to track environmental contamination. Environ Forensic 13(4):332–338CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lega M et al (2014) Remote sensing in environmental police investigations: aerial platforms and an innovative application of thermography to detect several illegal activities. Environ Monit Assess 186(12):8291–8301PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lenz R et al (2015) A critical assessment of visual identification of marine microplastic using Raman spectroscopy for analysis improvement. Mar Pollut Bull 100(1):82–91PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Li D-W et al (2014) Recent progress in surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy for the detection of environmental pollutants. Microchim Acta 181(1-2):23–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Mach PM, Wright KC, Verbeck GF (2015) Development of multi-membrane near-infrared diode mass spectrometer for field analysis of aromatic hydrocarbons. J Am Soc Mass Spectrom 26(2):281–285PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Mach PM et al (2015) Vehicle-mounted portable mass spectrometry system for the covert detection via spatial analysis of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories. Anal Chem 87(22):11501–11508PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Mächler L, Brennwald MS, Kipfer R (2012) Membrane inlet mass spectrometer for the quasi-continuous on-site analysis of dissolved gases in groundwater. Environ Sci Technol 46(15):8288–8296PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Meier-Augenstein W (1999) Applied gas chromatography coupled to isotope ratio mass spectrometry. J Chromatogr A 842(1-2):351–371PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Michel K et al (2004) Monitoring of pollutant in waste water by infrared spectroscopy using chalcogenide glass optical fibers. Sensors Actuators B Chem 101(1):252–259CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Miranda L et al (2013) Calibration of membrane inlet mass spectrometric measurements of dissolved gases: differences in the responses of polymer and nano-composite membranes to variations in ionic strength. Talanta 116:217–222PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Mohamed E et al (2016) Near infrared spectroscopy techniques for soil contamination assessment in the Nile Delta. Eurasian Soil Sci 49(6):632–639CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Na N et al (2007) Direct detection of explosives on solid surfaces by mass spectrometry with an ambient ion source based on dielectric barrier discharge. J Mass Spectrom 42(8):1079–1085PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Nelson RK et al (2006) Tracking the weathering of an oil spill with comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography. Environ Forensic 7(1):33–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. O’Leary AE et al (2015) Combining a portable, tandem mass spectrometer with automated library searching - an important step towards streamlined, on-site identification of forensic evidence. Anal Methods 7(8):3331–3339CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Pies C et al (2008) Characterization and source identification of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in river bank soils. Chemosphere 72(10):1594–1601PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Ram NM, Wiest MA, Davis CP (2005) Allocating cleanup costs at hazardous waste sites. Environ Sci Technol 39(6):128A–135ACrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Santos FJ, Galceran MT (2002) The application of gas chromatography to environmental analysis. TrAC Trends Anal Chem 21(9-10):672–685CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Santos FJ, Galceran MT (2003) Modern developments in gas chromatography–mass spectrometry-based environmental analysis. J Chromatogr A 1000(1-2):125–151PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sharma SK, Misra AK, Sharma B (2005) Portable remote Raman system for monitoring hydrocarbon, gas hydrates and explosives in the environment. Spectrochim Acta A Mol Biomol Spectrosc 61(10):2404–2412PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Sharpe SW et al (2004) Gas-phase databases for quantitative infrared spectroscopy. Appl Spectrosc 58(12):1452–1461PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Slater G (2003) Stable isotope forensics--when isotopes work. Environ Forensic 4(1):13–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Smith PA et al (2004) Detection of gas-phase chemical warfare agents using field-portable gas chromatography–mass spectrometry systems: instrument and sampling strategy considerations. TrAC Trends Anal Chem 23(4):296–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Smith PA et al (2010) Field-portable gas chromatography with transmission quadrupole and cylindrical ion trap mass spectrometric detection: chromatographic retention index data and ion/molecule interactions for chemical warfare agent identification. Int J Mass Spectrom 295(3):113–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Syage JA et al (2001) Field-portable, high-speed GC/TOFMS. J Am Soc Mass Spectrom 12(6):648–655PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Takats Z, Wiseman JM, Cooks RG (2005) Ambient mass spectrometry using desorption electrospray ionization (DESI): instrumentation, mechanisms and applications in forensics, chemistry, and biology. J Mass Spectrom 40(10):1261–1275PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Takats Z et al (2004) Mass spectrometry sampling under ambient conditions with desorption electrospray ionization. Science 306(5695):471–473PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Tudorachi L (2014) Linking chemistry to law in environmental forensics. Environ Forensic 15(3):213–218CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Van Cauwenberghe L et al (2013) Microplastic pollution in deep-sea sediments. Environ Pollut 182:495–499PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Vandenabeele P, Edwards H, Jehlička J (2014) The role of mobile instrumentation in novel applications of Raman spectroscopy: archaeometry, geosciences, and forensics. Chem Soc Rev 43(8):2628–2649PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Visotin A, Lennard C (2016) Preliminary evaluation of a next-generation portable gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS) for the on-site analysis of ignitable liquid residues. Aust J Forensic Sci 48(2):203–221CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Vítek P et al (2012) Evaluation of portable Raman spectrometer with 1064 nm excitation for geological and forensic applications. Spectrochim Acta A Mol Biomol Spectrosc 86:320–327PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. de Vos J et al (2011) Comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography time of flight mass spectrometry (GC × GC-TOFMS) for environmental forensic investigations in developing countries. Chemosphere 82(9):1230–1239PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Wells JM, Roth MJ, Keil AD, Grossenbacher JW, Justes DR, Patterson GE, Barket DJ Jr (2008) Implementation of DART and DESI ionization on a fieldable mass spectrometer. J Am Soc Mass Spectrom 19(10):1419–1424PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. White R (2011) Environmental law enforcement: the importance of global networks and collaborative practices. Aust Policing 3(1):12Google Scholar
  74. White R (2012) Environmental forensic studies and toxic towns. Curr Issues Crim Just 24:105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Wiley JS, Shelley JT, Cooks RG (2013) Handheld low-temperature plasma probe for portable “point-and-shoot” ambient ionization mass spectrometry. Anal Chem 85(14):6545–6552PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Yim UH et al (2012) Oil spill environmental forensics: the Hebei Spirit oil spill case. Environ Sci Technol 46(12):6431–6437PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Phillip M. Mach
    • 1
  • Guido F. Verbeck
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ChemistryUniversity of North TexasDentonUSA

Personalised recommendations