In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Forensics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Special Issues and Chapters

Environmental Science Environmental Forensics
Robert Morrison
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0071


Environmental forensics is defined as “the systematic and scientific evaluation of physical, chemical, and historical information for the purpose of developing defensible scientific and legal conclusions regarding the source or age of a contaminant release into the environment” (see the “Foreword” to Morrison and Murphy 2006 (cited under Environmental Forensics Books: 2000–2010). As such, there is a multitude of forensic techniques available for contaminant age dating and source identification including, but not limited to, aerial photo interpretation and photogrammetry, the association of unique chemicals with a discrete chemical process, identification of a manufacturer with a particular product and formulation, the use of chemical additives and/or impurities, chemical profiling, chemical degradation modeling, corrosion models, contaminant transport modeling (air, soil, soil vapor, groundwater), advanced statistical techniques, chronological changes in chemical processes and feedstocks resulting, compound specific isotopic analysis (CSIA), polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and dioxin/furan congener analysis, contaminant mass balance modeling, and chemical ratio analysis. For this bibliography, the primary groups of contaminants encountered and litigated are addressed while recognizing that many of these forensic techniques are applicable for numerous contaminant groups.

General Overviews

A number of published historical overviews provide a chronology detailing the evolution of environmental forensics, which gained acceptance in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a recognized science. Many early environmental forensic articles addressed issues related to marine oil spills and petroleum hydrocarbon exploration investigations. The term “fingerprinting” in the early environmental forensic literature originates from these investigations (Bentz 1976). Early petroleum hydrocarbon forensic investigations generally relied on a combination of physical and chemical characteristic techniques to examine bulk chemical and molecular similarities as source indicators. The more contemporary term for these techniques is pattern recognition, due in part to the role of exploratory data analysis in environmental forensic investigations. The article by Gibbs in 1990, which addressed forensic methods for differentiating petroleum hydrocarbon and fuel releases, represents an early precursor article to subsequent environmental forensic publications. Dr. Issac Kaplan was one of the first authors to consolidate this information relative to petroleum hydrocarbon investigations (see the seminal article Kaplan, et al. 1997). In this same year, Morrison 1997 consolidated multiple forensic techniques for a variety of contaminants released in marine and terrestrial environments, with an emphasis on petroleum hydrocarbons and chlorinated solvents. Morrison 1999 (cited under Environmental Forensics Books: 1990–2000) was the first book to use the term “environmental forensics.” Since 1999, numerous books and journals, including the Journal of Environmental Forensics, have consolidated the state-of-the-art knowledge for an expanded range of contaminants. Morrison 2000a and Morrison 2000b further expanded the techniques available in environmental forensic investigations and included contaminant modeling, aerial photographic interpretation, diagnostic chemical indicators, and corrosion modeling. Since these early publications, state-of-the-art overviews were introduced in a series of environmental forensic books, as presented in Environmental Forensics Books.

  • Bentz, A. 1976. Oil spill identification. Analytical Chemistry 48.6: 454A–472A.

    This article describes the legal and technical advances, including low temperature luminescence, field ionization mass spectrometry (MS), double-beam fluorescence, and simultaneous high-resolution dual detection gas chromatography (GC) in marine oil spill identification, due in part as a response to the 1867 Torrey Canyon spill in the English Channel. This article introduces the first use of the term “fingerprinting methods” in a peer-reviewed article: “Many analytical techniques can be used for fingerprinting oils” (p. 455A).

  • Gibbs, L. 1990. Gasoline additives—when and why. SAE Technical Paper 902104. Warrendale, PA: SAE International.

    DOI: 10.4271/902104

    This article provides detailed information on gasoline additives including lead antiknock compounds, dyes, lead scavengers such as ethylene dibromide and ethylene dichloride, antioxidants, metal deactivators, corrosion inhibitors, anti-icing agents, detergents, and demulsifiers. A chronology of the introduction of these additives into fuels in the United States is provided. Prior to this manuscript this information was frequently considered proprietary and difficult to obtain.

  • Kaplan, I., Y. Galperin, S. -T. Lu, and R. -P. Lee. 1997. Forensic environmental geochemistry: Differentiation of fuel-types, their sources and release time. Organic Geochemistry 27.5–6: 289–317.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0146-6380(97)87941-7

    This classic manuscript represents the first consolidation in a peer-reviewed publication of forensic methods used to differentiate fuels in environmentally altered samples. The article uses the term “fingerprinting” introduced by Bentz in 1976 and adopted by Gibbs in 1990. The use of PIANO (paraffin, iso-paraffin, aromatic, naphthene and olefin), and ratio analysis of petroleum groups is proposed to forensically age date and identify the source of a petroleum hydrocarbon release.

  • Morrison, R. 1997. Forensic techniques for establishing the origin and timing of a contaminant release. Environmental Claims Journal 9.2: 105–122.

    DOI: 10.1080/10406029709383866

    This article critically reviews forensic techniques specific for identifying the origin and timing of a contaminant release into terrestrial environments and their use in cost allocation cases. Techniques described include forensic aerial photo interpretation, chemical profiling of chemicals, chemical degradation modeling, chlorinated solvent ratio analysis, and reverse groundwater modeling.

  • Morrison, R. 2000a. Critical review of environmental forensic techniques. Part I. Environmental Forensics 1.4: 157–173.

    This article further consolidates and critically examines environmental forensic techniques and applications for a variety of contaminants. Forensic methodologies include corrosion models, the commercial availability of a compounds, surrogate chemicals associated with discrete manufacturing processes, chemical profiling, chemical degradation models, and contaminant transport models in groundwater.

  • Morrison, R. 2000b. Critical review of environmental forensic techniques. Part II. Environmental Forensics 1.4: 175–195.

    This companion article describes critically reviews additional forensic techniques used for contaminant age dating and source identification, including chemical degradation models, reverse groundwater contaminant modeling, chemical fingerprinting methodologies, and the use of proprietary additives and alkyl-leads in petroleum hydrocarbon investigations.

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