Monitoring, characterizing, and preventing microbial degradation of ignitable liquids on soil

Dee Ann Turner, Purdue University


Organic-rich substrates such as soil provide an excellent carbon source for bacteria. However, hydrocarbons such as those found in various ignitable liquids can also serve as a source of carbon to support bacterial growth. This is problematic for fire debris analysis as samples may be stored at room temperature for extended periods before they are analyzed due to case backlog. As a result, selective loss of key components due to bacterial metabolism can make identifying and classifying ignitable liquid residues by their chemical composition and boiling point range very difficult. The ultimate goal of this project is to preserve ignitable liquid residues against microbial degradation as efficiently and quickly as possible. Field and laboratory studies were conducted to monitor microbial degradation of gasoline and other ignitable liquids in soil samples. In addition to monitoring degradation in potting soil, as a worst case scenario, the effect of soil type and season were also studied. The effect of microbial action was also compared to the effect of weathering by evaporation (under nitrogen in the laboratory and by the passive headspace analysis of the glass fragments from the incendiary devices in the field studies). All studies showed that microbial degradation resulted in the significant loss of n-alkanes and lesser substituted alkylbenzenes predominantly and quickly, while more highly substituted alkanes and aromatics were not significantly affected. Additionally, the residential soil during the fall season showed the most significant loss of these compounds over the course of 30 days. To combat this problem, a chemical solution is to be immediately applied to the samples as they are collected. Various household and commercial products were tested for their efficacy at low concentrations to eliminate all living bacteria in the soil. Triclosan (2% (w/v) in NaOH) proved to be the most effective at preserving ignitable liquid residues for at least 30 days.




Goodpaster, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Analytical chemistry

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