How to detect counterfeit substances using forensics

To many, the word “forensics” brings to mind high-profile court cases – real or fictional – whose outcome hinged on the ingenious analysis of a rogue hair or shoeprint left at the scene of a homicide. Forensics indeed plays a crucial role in scenarios such as these through techniques including DNA and fingerprint analysis – however, this is just one small part of the world of forensics.

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Generally speaking, forensics – or, equivalently, “forensic science” or “criminalistics” – is the application of scientific analysis to the law. The field encompasses an array of specialisms and techniques, including toxicology, ballistics, serology, DNA analysis, pathology, and analysis of materials such as paint and glass. This broad scope means that forensic science concerns itself with such varied matters as document tampering, art fraud, and authentication of historical artifacts.

Forensic science plays a vital role in the criminal justice system and is, therefore, fundamental to our society. The development of forensic techniques and technologies in the U.S. is largely enabled by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which acts as the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. By providing grants to academic and not-for-profit research organizations, the NIJ fulfills an important role in enabling new forensic methods to be established and deployed.1

Forensics and Toxicology is one of the eight focus tracks at Pittcon, and Pittcon will be welcoming a number of world-leading experts in forensic science to speak at our upcoming event. Read on to find out more about what is in store.

The Rapidly Evolving World of Forensic Toxicology

As is the case with any science, the techniques used in forensics are constantly evolving. However, these change particularly quickly for forensic scientists working in toxicology and the detection and analysis of drugs.2

New illegal drugs are being continually developed, manufactured, sold, and consumed around the world. It is thus the job of forensic toxicologists and forensic drug chemists to keep a finger on the pulse of trends in drug use and to continually develop analytical techniques which can detect and analyze these new compounds.

The development of increasingly sensitive, cost-effective and user-friendly analytical systems means that tests that were once carried out using low-tech chemical color tests are now routinely carried out using advanced techniques such as mass spectrometry.

Dr. Frances Scott is among those scientists developing and applying these techniques within the world of forensic drug chemistry and toxicology at the NIJ. Pittcon is delighted to welcome her to this year’s exhibition to lead a symposium entitled Innovations and Trends in Forensic Examination of Seized Drugs and Forensic Toxicology, in which NIJ-funded researchers will give a behind-the-scenes look at some of the advanced analytical techniques they use in their field.

Representatives from the likes of Bruker and Thermo Fisher Scientific will also be a part of the main exposition, where they will be showcasing the very latest analytical tools and systems for forensic analysis.

The Forensics of Cultural Heritage

While forensic science plays a crucial role in monitoring illegal substances, this is far from its only application. At Pittcon, the fascinating intersection between forensic science and the world of art and artifacts will be explored.

The techniques employed by chemists working in cultural heritage would be immediately recognizable to any crime scene forensics team – yet their work is largely unknown in the world of forensic science. Employed by universities and museums around the world, conservation scientists use advanced analytical techniques to uncover the hidden histories of paintings, documents, and countless historical artifacts.

This work is not just academic: The U.S. Department of Justice ranks art crime as the third highest-grossing criminal trade worldwide.3 By confirming the legitimacy of artifacts and works of art, conservation scientists are able to detect counterfeits produced with increasingly sophisticated methods.4,5 In addition, their work provides valuable insight into the origin of historical artifacts of all kinds.6

World-renowned expert on the science of cultural heritage, Dr. Gregory Smith, will also be present at Pittcon. Leading a symposium entitled Crossroads of Forensic Science and Cultural Heritage Chemistry, Dr. Smith will be joined by several of the world’s leading experts on forensics and conservation science. Their series of talks will uncover some of the ways in which questions of science, art, and history are being addressed using advanced microscopy, spectroscopy, and chromatography techniques.

Forensics and Toxicology Program at Pittcon

Pittcon will be taking place at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on March 18th. As one of the world’s largest conferences on analytical chemistry, Pittcon has an unparalleled technical program featuring some of the most prominent minds in academia and industry.

Pittcon’s Forensics and Toxicology track will feature a wide variety of sessions on forensic science and toxicology, suitable for everyone from researchers to interested members of the public.

Alongside talks and the main exposition, Pittcon will also be running a number of short courses and interactive sessions. Visit the Pittcon website to find out more, register to attend, or to explore the Session Gallery for a preview of some of the talks, sessions, and short courses that will be running throughout the week.

About Pittcon

Pittcon® is a registered trademark of The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, a Pennsylvania non-profit organization. Co-sponsored by the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh, Pittcon is the premier annual conference and exposition on laboratory science.

Proceeds from Pittcon fund science education and outreach at all levels, kindergarten through adult. Pittcon donates more than a million dollars a year to provide financial and administrative support for various science outreach activities including science equipment grants, research grants, scholarships and internships for students, awards to teachers and professors, and grants to public science centers, libraries and museums.

Visit pittcon.org for more information.


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Last updated: Feb 1, 2024 at 7:38 AM

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