Corpses, Drugs and a $1,000 Scotch

Wolfram Meier-Augenstein

Tragic Trajectory Forensic researchers used this 14-cm lock of hair to map a dead man's route to the U.K.

Measuring isotopes has come a long way. Recent reports describe an emerging field of environmental forensics. Where did those illegal drugs come from? Is that $1,000 bottle of scotch the real deal?

According to Chemical & Engineering News:

An analytical chemist at James Hutton Institute, in Dundee, Scotland, Meier-Augenstein has pioneered a way to help determine where unidentified victims like this one lived or traveled. To do so, he measures the stable isotope ratios of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur found in samples of the victim's hair, teeth, nail, and bone. Checking these elements' isotope ratios against databases that contain global isotope abundances can provide investigators with the victim's probable trajectory during his or her last weeks, months, and years.

Referred to as "isoscapes" - a hybrid term using isotopes and landscapes, this powerful technology can be applied to a broad range of problems:

Bottled Water

Isotope ratios of carbon and of the hydrogen in water can help tell whether an expensive brand of bottled water really comes from an exotic spring in France, as advertised.

Counterfeit Whiskey

Scottish distilleries use local water during mash production and during dilution of mature whiskey to the appropriate strength. Water isotope ratios can distinguish Asian counterfeits from the real McCoy.

Explosion Agents

Antiterrorism agencies are increasingly using carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isoscape databases to determine the provenance of explosives such as ammonium nitrate and plastic explosives.

Fancy Foods

The true provenance of olive oil, honey, Emmental cheese, and salmon can be determined by checking carbon isotope ratios.

Fake Fragrances

Expensive fragrances can be distinguished from knockoffs by their hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen isoscape maps, which point to their manufacturing sites.

Illegal Drugs

The geographical source of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine can be inferred from the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios in the active ingredients sold illicitly.

Migrating Marine Animals

Carbon isotopes can help track the movement of salmon because isotope composition varies with ocean temperatures, which correlate to geographical position. Sea turtles, tuna, and herring could also be monitored this way.

Whoever said that Chemistry can be boring? Perhaps increasing availability of such technologies will give counterfeiters and murderers pause. You can't hide isotopes.

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Wow. I feel the same way and I keep trying to tell my friends at school, but they think I'm more boring than chemistry! This post makes me feel good though.