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Contamination examination

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Dr Andrew Symons, from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, outlines the role of the state’s environmental forensic laboratory. Environmental forensics is associated with any sort of investigation into contamination in the environment, its purpose being to help a court of law determine the facts. Dr Andrew Symons is part of the Environmental Forensics team at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH). The team of 20 scientists assist the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) investigate incidents and regulate pollution, provide scientific support during environmental emergencies such as oil spills at sea and major factory fires, and assist the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) investigate incidents such as bird deaths.

They are also involved in research projects, working with a range of organisations like universities and the CSIRO. The team has people with different backgrounds to reflect the range of investigations it undertakes. Skills in chemistry, biology and environmental risk assessment are all covered. Team members also act as expert witnesses in court, helping to establish scientific facts. The team mainly does work for the EPA and others in OEH, including NPWS. Anyone who sees environmental contamination should call the EPA which employs officers across the state.

These people will first speak to any relevant parties to work out what the best solution is and if necessary collect samples. The EPA provides most samples, but other state government and local government organisations also send samples for testing. Companies are required to notify the EPA of any spills immediately, a law that was changed two years ago.

When a sample arrives there are six basic questions for the team.
What is the contaminant?
Where has it come from?
When did the contamination occur?
Who is responsible for it?
Why did it occur?
What is the impact on the environment?
Many different things are investigated, from air pollution, wildlife poisonings and fish kills to atmospheric fallout.

Contaminants, pH levels (acidity), heavy metals and pesticides also feature. In atmospheric fallout, for example, dust or powder may have fallen on someone’s car, causing them concern. The sample would first be looked at under a microscope to determine what it is, since it could be metallic, mineral or biological. One yellow powder sent for analysis was shown to be pollen!

Chemical testing can be used to determine metal analysis and the presence of heavy metals like copper, chromium, lead and nickel.
Organic compounds like pesticides, herbicides, hydrocarbons and oil also show up under chemical testing.
The chemical analysis can look at even tiny levels of contamination, analysing one gram of chemical out of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Spectroscopy techniques can look closely at unknown samples to determine their basic components. Spectroscopy looks at how chemical bonds stretch and bend when exposed to different light wavelengths. Oil fingerprinting is also carried out in the laboratory. Similar to a human fingerprint, petroleum oils contains unique chemical markers, the ratio of which can identify the oil as diesel, lube oil, heavy fuel oil, waste oil or crude oil.

Such markers can then be used to trace the oil to certain areas or particular processing facilities, eventually matching the spill to its source. Oils are fairly easily matched. However, a recent spill of detergent in a river, which killed four tonnes of fish, proved harder. The detergent was used in so many different industries that the potential source could not be narrowed down.
It is important to assess the potential environmental harm caused by pollution. Ecotoxicologists within the Environmental Forensics team expose different organisms, such as bacteria or algae, to pollution samples. They can then assess the impact of the pollution on the organism’s growth, reproduction and even behaviour. There are seasonal incidents such as summer pesticides sprayed on crops that can drift onto neighbouring properties.
Asbestos dumping also comes in waves, along with other waste materials.

Some methods and equipment techniques may need to be adapted for new chemicals. New types of pesticides and herbicides come in as old ones are banned. This facility is uniquely placed to adapt to the future, ensuring that environmental contamination gets the thorough examination it deserves.

Dr Andrew Symons was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images provided by Dr Symons. Summary text by Victor Barry, June 2015.

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