Court Sandau, INEF 2016

5 Outlooks for Environmental Forensics – Conclusion: Solving the Issue of Data Handling

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This is the conclusion of the blog series on 5 outlooks of Environmental Forensics.

Challenge for Chemists & Investigators

I concluded my talk at INEF 2016 with one final message.  I think this is something that environmental chemists and environmental forensics investigators have known for a long time and probably have not been forced to deal with: The challenge of data handling.

From an analytical chemistry perspective, we almost have no limits in what can be done in an investigation. But we’re not necessarily prepared to handle and analyze such a robust amount of data.

We have the Scientific Capabilities

In terms of data collection, we know that if we are not restricted to regulatory compounds, we can measure all relevant chemicals to determine the source or timing of contaminant release.

High-resolution mass spectrometry coupled with certain preparatory techniques and chromatography techniques can already produce quantitative numbers to the parts per quadrillion (10-15, ppq).  These detection limits are more than sensitive enough for all environmental forensics investigations.

Using techniques such as two dimensional gas chromatography, we have the capability to separate extremely complex mixtures.  20,000 chemicals have been identified in crude oil samples.  So, analytically we can already achieve the measurement of 20,000 organic chemicals in samples in concentrations down to ppq levels.

So what is stopping us?

The simple answer is: Data.

Data handling for this much information is by far our biggest challenge for moving environmental forensics chemistry into the world of DNA-like analysis.  There is no method that I know of currently that allows us to use this amount of information and then analyze it in an appropriate manner.

We Need to Improve Data Handling

If I see one question that the environmental forensics community needs to address (and quickly) it’s this: How do we handle this much data so that the information can be used efficiently? 

Chemists need to start looking at the statisticians and mathematicians to help with this apparent wall of information that prevents us from moving forward.

Are you ready for big data for your environmental forensics investigation?  If so, please contact me.  We need to talk!