Unconventional Forensics
Written by Gwyn Winfield   

It would be difficult to state with any certainty when Kim Jong-nam knew he had been assassinated. The chemical agent used, VX, is odorless, colorless and oily. Before he was aware of it, his body was beginning to struggle to breathe as the nerve agent started to impede his body’s ability to deal with acetylcholinesterase. Much like the shocking photos out of Syria recently, he would have started to feel short of breath, and his body would have slowly been strangled from the inside.

Indeed, the symptoms were such that his initial cause of death was suspected to be a heart attack or other form of respiratory failure. Before the cause of death was known, his body, and everywhere he sat, would have been potentially lethal to anyone unprotected that happened to touch it. VX, and other nerve agents, can be absorbed through the skin, and even the smallest amount can have a significant impact on the body, including death. It is, therefore, imperative that for both the sake of the public, crime scene technicians, and mortuary staff that the chemical agent is quickly identified and the level of hazard reduced. This is part of the challenge that the European Commission-funded Generic Integrated Forensic Toolbox (GIFT) project has been designed to deal with. It will provide skills, tools, and science specifically designed for forensic technicians. Much of the work that has been done in the CBRN field came from a military background, and, while effective in combat, has not been optimized for forensic investigation. GIFT is a four-year project that brings together specialist forensic institutes with research institutes that specialize in CBRN. In addition to these governmental organizations, there are a range of companies involved in biological detection, chemical detection, and radiological detection, as well as systems architecture that brings all this data together, and the ethics and legal element that ensures that all this is correct and defensible in court. (See box on Page 8 for a full list of organizations and companies involved with GIFT.)

The technology ranges from devices for monitoring the atmosphere to detect harmful vapors and gases, all the way to machines that can capture a fingerprint from a distance and detect whether it has come into contact with agents of interest. There are too many pieces of technology to go into detail on all of them, so the following is a personalized run-down. More information on the whole project can be found on www.giftforensics.eu.

Organizations Involved in GIFT

Specialist forensic institutes
Netherlands Forensic Institute
National Forensic Centre (Sweden)
National Institute for Criminalistics and Criminology (Belgium)
Research institutes that specialize in CBRN
Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research
Swedish Defence Research Agency
Atomic Weapons Establishment (UK)
Food and Environment Research Agency (UK)
Royal Military Academy (Belgium)
Atomic Energy Commissariat (France)
National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (Netherlands)
National Authority in Radiation and Nuclear Safety (Finland)
Tyndall Institute (Ireland)
Institute for Transuranium Elements (Germany)

Nanobiz (Turkey) - biological detection
Tyndall Institute (Ireland) - chemical detection
Ramem (Spain) - chemical detection
M2 Lasers (Scotland) - chemical detection
Analyze IQ (Ireland) - chemical detection
LQC (Spain) - radiological detection

Systems Architecture
Tyndall Institute (Ireland)
Nanobiz (Turkey)
Analyze IQ (Ireland)
Space Apps (Belgium)
Ethics and legal
Eticas (Spain)

Radiating confidence

Alpha radiation detection from a safe distance is a vital ability. When Alexander Litvinenko was murdered with Polonium 210, his killers did not realize what they were dealing with. All they knew was that it was a lethal poison. Due to the difficulty of detection, the killers tracked the contamination not only through their hotel room, but also into planes and their private homes. The danger that they and their friends, families, and close neighbors were in was very real.

As opposed to gamma radiation, which can be detected from many meters away, alpha radiation requires special equipment that needs to measure it mere centimeters from the source. This is a highly time-intensive and painstaking task that requires trained individuals. When you consider that the contamination might be in multiple locations, and on multiple individuals, it gives you an idea of how long the process could take. The ability for forensic technicians to be able to safely and quickly assess a crime scene is vital, not only in being able to take a viable sample, but also in ensuring their own safety, as well as the safety of others.

A solution to this has been devised by STUK and another Finnish start up, Alfa Rift. This is a combination of telescope and a photomultiplier tube, and can detect a variety of alpha radiation sources from meters away in the matter of a couple of minutes. By measuring the ionization-induced fluorescence of air particles, the device can find contamination, even in daylight. In layman’s terms the alpha particles decay naturally and this decay can be measured through its impact on naturally occurring molecules (such as nitrogen) in the air. This excitation can be measured using an ultraviolet telescope.

This ability was used in a radiation validation exercise at the Moreton in Marsh exercise in December 2016. A variety of UK law enforcement and AWE staff ran an exercise based around an individual that had tried to create a “dirty bomb” and among the elements of this exercise was a validation of the combination telescope. The device functioned as promised and caused quite a stir amongst the exercise participants who, as trained CBRN officers, appreciated the time saving that being able to quickly scan a room would bring.

The funding from GIFT allowed STUK to spend time in the laboratory to optimize the filter and detector combination. This is mostly trial and error because the signal levels in UV are orders of magnitude weaker than background in the visible region. Therefore, optimizing the light tolerance versus the sensitivity is the priority, because increased light tolerance equals wider usability. GIFT also enabled them to work with ITU, who provided access to high-quality alpha sources that are not easily available elsewhere. Hopefully STUKs partnership with Alfa Rift will see a finished product released to the market in the next few years. This would have a wide variety of applications not only in crime scenes but also nuclear power plants and other locations.

Spanish company LQC also worked in the area of radiation to deliver a low-cost gamma camera. Gamma cameras have been used in imagery of scans of human organs, including brains and kidneys, for several years, but they tend to be specialized, large, and expensive. LQC has provided an intuitive handheld device that will detect sources of radiation—but this time, instead of alpha, it looks for penetrating gamma radiation. Whereas alpha radiation is not able to penetrate very far through air, but produces an incredible amount of damage to the human body when ingested, a strong gamma source will project many meters in a straight line, until it is weakened by enough objects in the way.

While gamma radiation might be most familiar to civilians as what made the Hulk green, in reality it is a much sought-after family of isotopes by terrorists. Usually the individuals will need to find it using a “Geiger counter” or a Radiation Isotope Identification Device (RIID), but by necessity this means putting part of your body (i.e. the part holding the detector) in harm’s way for a short period of time. The new gamma camera allows a very fast detection of not only what the radioisotope is, but where it is, and in what strength.

The RadAl Cam designed by LQC will overlay both visible and near infrared images over a gamma image produced by an array of Thallium activated Cesium Iodide (CsI(Tl)) crystals. To the user, the image looks very much like a thermal imager. Sources of high gamma radiation will move up a color scale, allowing the user to map a crime scene in seconds, so that they can determine whether it is safe to enter and how they can plan their entry to the scene without sustaining too high a dose. The camera has been advanced greatly thanks to GIFT funding, and is now a viable prototype. While the unit cost has yet to be set, it is likely to be in the low tens of thousands of euros.

GIFT’s improved decontamination procedures, that don’t degrade conventional traces, means that samples can go to a normal lab.
Photo courtesy CBRNe World

Chemical attraction

Another exciting element of the technology in GIFT is the work that M2 Lasers is doing on infrared hyperspectral imaging of fingerprints and characterization of their composition at a safe distance. There may well be times when a CBRN crime scene is simply too hazardous to enter. This could either be because the structure has been damaged by the explosion used to disseminate the agent, or because the level of radioactive contamination (for example) is simply too high to send in a human. Therefore, the ability to be able to image a fingerprint, and capture it, from a safe distance is vital. Add to that the ability to possibly also interrogate the fingerprint—so that you know whether this fingerprint has explosive residue on it and therefore belongs to the likely perpetrator of the crime—makes this technology even more attractive.

M2 Lasers have been working on their active infrared hyperspectral imaging device, FireflyIR, in the project to be able to deliver a spectroscopic technique for remote and proximity detection of many molecules and compounds of interest across a multitude of application scenarios. Chemical warfare agents, explosives, or narcotic compounds are absorbed at characteristic “fingerprint” wavelengths in the infrared, and these can provide both a way to identify their presence or provide a negative-contrast image. The wide wavelength coverage of the technology can be utilized to not only detect fingerprints, but also to characterize their composition—and further information can be acquired by applying spectroscopic analysis. Over the past three years the FireflyIR scanner system has been further demonstrated to be a good candidate for the contact-free detection of latent fingerprints.

The hyperspectral imager must work on a variety of fingerprints on a variety of materials. Does the explosive RDX, for example, become easier or harder to identify whether it is on leather or glass? While the research is ongoing, the technology, once unlocked, will hopefully be a massive advantage to crime scene technicians who will be able to capture an image of a fingerprint that allows both physical and chemical identification.

Yet identification comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and some of the research that is being done in the CBRN and forensics laboratories will help give greater understanding of what has gone into that CBRN agent. For example, the body of Kim Jong-nam can provide us with information not only on what the agent was, but how it was created. Work that is being done by FOI on the project could eventually lead to being able to say not only what the purity of the agent was and what it was, but also the methods used to create it, what brand of precursors were involved in its creation, and where those precursors came from. The ability to do forensic identification of chemical agents is a field that has been neglected under the military, who tend to look at dispersal forms (such as rockets or shells) as the way of determining origin/actor. The science worked on by FOI and others will help criminal and terrorist cases be prosecuted with far greater accuracy.

The research looked at three chemical substances: Phorate (a toxic pesticide), Fentanyl (powerful opioid and a potential riot control agent), and Acrylonitrile (highly toxic industrial chemical). It also looked at four toxins: α-Amanitin, the major toxin of Amanita mushrooms, Aflatoxin B1, the most toxic aflatoxin, T-2 toxin, the highly potent trichothecene mycotoxin, and Ricinine, an alkaloid present in castor beans and the marker for ricin. Researchers looked at taking apart the sample into the smallest components possible and seeing whether those subcomponents were able to be separately analyzed. For example, the team wanted to see whether there were geographic markers in the α-Amanitin that would say where the toxin came from. This would allow the crime lab to examine the stomach matter, isolate the Amanita mushroom elements and then analyze them to find out whether they were local to where the individual was killed: if not, it might provide clues to where the killer was based, or had travelled. The team found that there were indeed biomarkers that linked Amanita to one national location or another, and proved the principle that it might be possible to tie them to a location.

Research led by NFI, but in partnership with a variety of labs, also looked at the potential of decontaminating evidence without losing other forensic elements, such as fingerprints or DNA. Traditional decontamination uses lots of water, often with harsh chemicals added to it, in a high pressure format to remove or reduce the toxicity of the contamination. While this has a brutal efficiency, it is not compatible with the requirement for a pristine crime scene and evidence. Yet some form of decontamination is vital, as the generic crime lab cannot deal with samples contaminated with a hazardous agent, and the CBRN lab does not have the tools and techniques to either deal with conventional forensic samples, or the pace at which those samples might arrive.

This required the team to be able to look at the impact of conventional decontamination on typical forensic substrates and whether traditional traces remained intact. As was expected, most of them had a significant impact on things like fingerprints of DNA, but the team were able to find some solutions that allowed a significant, workable, reduction in contamination and retained conventional traces. For example, vaporized hydrogen peroxide was found to be efficacious in some cases, and vacuum chambers in others. This is a major step forward, though not effective in all cases as each CBRN agent requires different methods of decontamination. Radiological contamination will remain a major problem. It does secure traces and push the level of contamination down to the level that forensic laboratories can have a sensible conversation about balance of risk.

GIFT has been a major milestone in the development of forensic tactics, techniques, procedures, and technology. Its legacy will be felt not only with the crime scene investigators and crime labs, but also with law enforcement and CBRN responders. As a project that has been funded via the European Commission, many of these work packages are available on request for interested agencies and those individuals that would like to learn more can attend the end conference on the October 17, 2017, or via the GIFT website: www.giftforensics.eu.

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is the Editorial Director at Falcon Communications and the Editor of CBRNe World magazine. He has been writing on CBRN issues for the past 16 years and has appeared in a variety of TV and mainstream media outlets.

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