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The Potential for Soil Dust Analysis in Forensics

by Anthony W. Accurso

Australian forensic scientists, led by Flinders University, have been studying how the chemical and biological analysis of as little as three mg of dust can pinpoint its geographical origin, so it “can be used as key evidence to link back to the scene of a crime.”

Dust is the airborne fraction of soil, containing mineral profiles, as well as bacteria and fungi. Recent advances in sampling and measuring equipment, including cost reductions, are enabling scientists to determine whether, assuming a large enough database of samples, forensic practitioners could track objects through space and time based on the dust they collect.

“[W]e undertook a field experiment, leaving items at various locations in South Australia to collect dust and observe whether these chemical and biological (bacteria and fungi) signatures were distinct between sites,” said researcher Nicole Foster. “We found that the dust recovered from each item contained chemical and biological profiles that were unique to sites but these profiles were variable within sites over time.”

In early trials, researchers “were able to correctly predict providence for 67% of samples using bacteria profiles and 56% using fungi profiles,” a level of predictive accuracy that will likely improve quickly as more reference data is cataloged.

It may be a while before dust analysis experts are asked to testify in court, but the science has potential.  



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