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700 South Industrial Way
Seattle, WA 98108

Forensic Engineering and Laboratories

Forensic Laboratories

  • MDE FORENSIC LABORATORIES
  • CHEMICAL ANALYSIS
  • DRUGS, POISONS AND CONTAMINANT ANALYSIS

Experts at MDE offer laboratory analysis and research to provide our diverse client base a wide range of testing in support of their investigational needs. State-of-the-art analytical instrumentation complimented with large scale testing and exposure chambers provide our clients with a comprehensive approach to the investigation at hand. MDE offers a multi-faceted approach to problem solving in one location. MDE experts are certified and licensed in all appropriate aspects of their work.

The choice of the analytical approach offered at MDE is as diverse as the problems themselves. Whether the problem calls for standard methods or original research and reverse engineering, MDE Forensic Laboratory has the experience and skill to get to the root of the issue. Standard methods such as ASTM or ANSI may be used in the evaluation process of evidence. MDE also have a proven track record for designing and implementing custom/innovative testing methods for both on site and remote evaluation protocols.

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The Forensic Laboratories Division of MDE offers analysis and customized testing and research many areas:

  • Chemical analysis      
  • Polymeric evaluations                                    
  • Microanalysis
  • Metallurgical analysis and testing
  • Microbiological analysis
  • Failure analysis
  • Fire testing
  • Environmental exposure testing
  • Forensic investigations
  • Consulting/case review
  • Education/training/research

The analytical capabilities of the Forensic Laboratory include:

  • Gas Chromatography with Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS)
  • Fourier Transform Infrared spectrometry (FTIR)
  • Scanning Electron Microscopy with Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectrometry (SEM/EDS)
  • Microscopy
  • Photography
  • Thermal gravimetric analysis (TGA)
  • Calorimetry: heat, smoke and combustion analysis
  • Data acquisition (temperature, weight, electrical, etc)
  • Environmental exposure testing
  • Microbiological induced corrosion (MIC)
  • Ability to design and construct custom testing methods

CHEMICAL ANALYSIS

Investigational Analytical Chemistry is one of the core offerings of the Forensic Laboratory. Certified chemists with over 30 years performing varied analyses will provide the client with qualified opinions in a wide range of investigations including scene documentation, sample collection and preservation, laboratory evaluation, reporting and consulting with the client.

  • Chemical testing
    • Drug analysis: criminal reanalysis and civil product testing
    • Poisons/contaminants/adulterants/tampering
    • Consumer product/ingredient characterization
    • Clandestine drug manufacturing and structural contamination
    • Chemical reverse engineering/deformulation; patent infringement
    • Chemical process troubleshooting and control
    • Explosives and explosives residue analysis
    • Ignitable liquid analysis
    • Polymeric evaluations/degradation analysis
    • Fuels and oils/lubricants analysis
    • Fuel delivery system fouling/troubleshooting
    • Biodiesel
    • On-site evaluations/documentation and sampling
  • Polymers and coatings
    • Characterization
    • Identification and comparison
    • Paint transfer/hit & run evaluations
    • Defect determination
    • Performance/exposure evaluation
    • Application issues
  • Microanalysis
    • Fatigue evaluation
    • Corrosion evaluation
    • Small particle evaluation
    • Documentation of smaller-than-visual components
  • Metallurgical analysis and testing
    • Root-cause failure analysis
    • Fatigue evaluation
    • Corrosion evaluation
    • Stress evaluation
    • Finite element analysis
      (Keith Cline)
  • Microbiological testing
    • Mold and mildew
    • Wood rot
    • MIC testing
      (Susan Evans)
  • Failure analysis
    • Personal injury
    • Property damage
    • Materials and components
    • Design evaluation
    • Construction defects
  • Fire testing
    • ASTM methods for ignitable liquid residues
    • FAME analysis for spontaneous heating
    • Evaluation of incompatible chemicals
    • Flame/fire retardants
    • Materials characterization and identification
    • Ignition and combustion characteristics
    • Calorimetry testing
    • Scenario testing
    • Self-heating/oxidation evaluation
  • Environmental exposure testing
    • Vapor drive
    • Self-heating
    • Weight loss
    • Temperature/humidity/UV effects
  • Forensic investigations
    • Dust, soot, stain evaluation
    • Fire scenario testing
    • Criminal case review

DRUGS, POISONS AND CONTAMINANT ANALYSIS

MDE has assisted criminal defense attorneys by reviewing and verifying, often by reanalysis, the lab results of the prosecution.  The laboratory is licensed by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Washington State Board of Health to have controlled substances on site.

We have the background and instrumentation to address such issues whether the attempt to harm is using a drug, poison, acid or foreign object. The possibilities are almost infinite and experience can be the key to solving the puzzle. Some of the situations we have investigated in the past include:

  • Spousal/family/neighbor conflicts and poisonings
  • White powder scares in mail and public locations
  • Foreign materials found I restaurant foods
  • Personal care product tampering
  • Pet poisonings

Clandestine drug laboratories manufacturing methamphetamine have left behind thousands of contaminated residences, apartments and other sites. This trend is in full swing across the country. MDE is fully certified to perform on-site assessment of these sites for contamination and verify they are clean after remediation. MDE is one of a handful of laboratories to carry the dual certification for sampling and analysis.

CASE EXAMPLE

Several years ago, the nation suffered an anthrax scare which precipitated a rash of copycat episodes in the local area. MDE served as a centralized laboratory to quickly characterize the multitude of exhibits to determine which ones presented a real hazard. Luckily, most were determined to be readily available powders that were not particularly toxic. A few were identified as somewhat hazardous materials that could then be properly disposed and the sites efficiently remediated. 

FIRE DEBRIS and EXPLOSIVES ANALYSIS

MDE has a state-of-the-art laboratory equipped with the capabilities to analyze all fire debris evidence types potentially collected during the course of a chemically-related fire investigation. Accelerant, self-heating, chemical incompatibility, and run-away chemical reactions are some of the fire scenarios the laboratory has dealt with in the past. MDE also can respond to the scene of the fire to perform the necessary investigation, documentation, evidence collection and other ancillary duties to ensure a challenge-proof result.

The laboratory has assessed pre-blast explosives formulations for destructive potential and has analyzed post-blast evidence to identify the formulation in the explosive device. Analysts received their training at the FBI and AFT laboratories and have over 30 years experience.  

Coupling our instrumental capability with over 30 years of practical forensic laboratory experience results in one of the most complete and most qualified laboratories in the country.
All analyses are conducted by American Board of Criminalistics certified analysts using ASTM methodology.

  • Gas chromatography mass spectrometry
  • Fourier Transform infrared spectrometry
  • Microscopy
  • Scanning electron microscopy with elemental analysis

CASE REVIEW

MDE Forensic assisted a foreign corporation by reverse engineering a portable fire suppression device so it could be imported into the USA.. Little information was available on the device formulation as it was produced in Eastern Europe with no supporting literature or documentation. Chemical analysis of the reactant mixture, live testing of the device, identification of the reaction by-products and corrosion evaluation of the products was all conducted. Potential patent infringement issues were also addressed. The device is currently being introduced into the USA and many fire departments endorse its use. 

FUELS, OILS AND LUBRICANTS

The switch to green fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel is not without its deleterious side effects. Vehicle maintenance centers deliver many different lubricants and oils in a speedy fashion which can lead to the wrong lubricant added to a reservoir. In some cases, vandalism of the fuel system of parked vehicle is claimed as the cause of contamination. News headlines have proclaimed that gas stations or even refineries are responsible for multiple claims of “bad fuel”.

MDE has the experience and analytical capabilities to fully evaluate all these claims and get to the bottom of the issue. Whether the symptom is a plugged filter or injector, phase separation of components, observed contamination of the product or failure of the system to operate correctly, the solution is analysis of the products in the system.

CASE EXAMPLE

In the effort to be “green” a major metropolitan diesel-powered utility fleet was shifted to a biodiesel blend. The onset of cold autumn and winter temperatures left the fleet incapacitated with plugged filters and transfer lines. Analysis of the residues showed them to contain diglycerides, the result of incomplete conversion of the raw oils during the production of the biodiesel. The drop in temperature caused these waxes to precipitate out as solids. The utility was advised to lower the percent biodiesel in the blend with cooler temperatures and maintain a strict quality control program for incoming biodiesel.

CASE EXAMPLE

The intumescent (fire protective) coating on a new metropolitan transit station delaminated before the station was opened. MDE provided the on-site evaluation, laboratory analysis and exposure testing data which demonstrated the cause for the failure. Based on recommendations, the entire steel structure was stripped and coated with a traditional system Sprinklers were installed to meet fire codes. The root cause of the failure was determined to be solvent trapping and interface effects resulting in the delamination.

POLYMERS  AND COATINGS

The use of polymeric materials in our environment is tremendous and includes plastics, paints, adhesives, sealants and composites. These materials can be found in building materials, consumer products, packaging, tools and hardware, medical devices and transportation to name a few. The ubiquitous presence coupled with the infinite application of these polymeric materials will inevitably result in the occasional failure. This failure can be manifested as property damage, personal injury or simple cosmetic deterioration. 

Failure analysis begins at the site of the failure. Specialists at MDE have vast experience in responding to the site of failures to record the all important background information and properly collect and preserve the failed components. At the minimum, relevant information can be obtained form the affected parties and observers.

MDE has the analytical tools required to characterize and identify the basic components of an unknown material, confirm the identity of a suspect material and to determine the differences between similar materials. The ability to successfully perform and complete these analyses is the foundation for many types of investigations.

Once the material testing is complete and the data is collected, MDE scientists can begin the task of interpretation and determining the significance of the findings based on other facts in the investigation. The goal is often to determine the root cause for the material/product failure and identify the responsible mechanism. 

The types of materials that have been investigated in past failure analyses include:

  • Adhesives
  • Piping and tubing
  • Paints and primers
  • Intumescent coatings
  • Fittings
  • Medical devices
  • Building components
  • Sealants and caulking
  • Many more…

CASE EXAMPLE

The kitchen tile floor in a newly opened high-end restaurant began to have issues within a few months of opening after the epoxy grout began to degrade, slough off and fall out in chunks. Initially, the grout was replaced only to fail again in a few months. The entire floor was replaced after the second failure. The installer was blamed for faulty application in both failures.

After a review of the grout chemistry, listed incompatible materials, and the maintenance records, an exposure experiment was initiated to study the effect of used cooking oils treated with the enzymatic cleaners used on the floor. It was discovered that the enzymes converted used oils into oxidative by-products that chemically attacked the epoxy causing it to loose its integrity. The maintenance products and procedures used by the restaurant had caused the grout to fail!

MICROANALYSIS

There exists another universe at a scale too small to appreciate or evaluate with unassisted vision. Much of the evidence for the root cause of failure exists at this scale. Therefore, micro-examinations are at the core of many of the investigations conducted at MDE Forensic Laboratories. The characterization of micro-structural composition, inclusions, particle size determination, microbiological growth, contamination and other characteristics begin and sometimes end with the use of a microscope.

MDE Forensic Laboratories has a variety of microscopic capabilities to address very situation.

  • Stereomicroscopy
  • Polarized light microscopy
  • EPI microscopy/metalascope
  • Scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive x-ray detectors

The situations that often give rise to the need for micro-examinations are diverse. Some of the past investigations include:

  • Trace evidence evaluation
    • Criminal defense casework
  • Product evaluation
  • Contaminant characterization
  • Structural characterization
    • Metallurgical
    • Paints and coatings
  • More?

CASE SCENARIO

A brick façade product popular in the 1980’s was improperly installed, resulting in a wall fire that severely injured two young men who rented the house. At issue was misleading advertising and labeling which illustrated/demonstrated the improper installation. Microanalysis results for the brick removed from the façade behind the wood stove were positively compared to authentic exemplars of the brick product manufactured in the same era as the original installation. These results ensured the correct company was held responsible for the  error and subsequent injuries. (15356)

METALLURGICAL TESTING

(Keith Cline)

MICROBIOLOGICAL TESTING

(Susan Evans)

Mold
On-site evaluation
Identification
Remediation
Food toxins
Microbiological induced corrosion (MIC)

FAILURE ANALYSIS

Things break, do not work properly, or wear our prematurely resulting in property damage or even personal injury. The determination of how and why this happened is best termed failure analysis. It is a broad area encompassing everything from design and manufacturing defects, installation and maintenance issues to over-loading and exposure degradation.

MDE has been investigating and resolving product failures for over 25 years. Our years of experience and laboratory capabilities allow us to characterize the key factors initiating failure and identify the root cause.

On-site investigation and information gathering are often keys to a successful investigation. Exemplar samples of non-failed material are often compared to the failed item to identify the key differences; these differences often lead to the cause of failure. In addition to the full range of analytical instrumentation, MDE also has an assortment of exposure chambers on site to accelerate environmental effects to the materials of interest. Both customized analyses as well as standard testing methodologies, such as ASTM methods, are used in these evaluations.

The root cause for a product failure can be varied. Potential causes begin with manufacturing and have in the past been identified as improper design, contamination or processing errors. Problems with shipping, storage and installation have also been identified as contributing to the root cause for failure. On the consumer end, exposure, maintenance and abuse have been found to contribute to the premature failure of many materials. The potential contributing factors to failure are numerous, but a well thought out analytical process will normally resolve these into a logical sequence.

Examples of past failure analyses include:

  • Adhesive failures
  • Plastic piping
  • Epoxy grouts
  • Paints and coatings
  • Aircraft parts
  • Medical devices

CASE EXAMPLE

In the late 1990’s hydronic heating systems using flexible polyethylene piping became extremely popular in new condominium projects. Within a few years of construction, many were failing, resulting in large claims for water damage and system replacement. Extensive on-site investigations, review of manufacturing records, detailed laboratory analysis, long-term exposure studies and redesign of the systems was all necessary in order to identify the root causes for the failures, the long term expectancy of existing systems and repair options. In some cases, the failure was due to manufacturing deficiencies, others failed because of contact with incompatible materials, while others failed due to less than ideal installation practices. MDE was able to provide timely, accurate and reliable results to the litigation participants to resolve these claims.

FIRE TESTING

Potential fire causation is quite varied and often not simple. Often many factors need to be evaluated in order to accurately identify the root cause for the ignition and subsequent fire spread. MDE has been using our laboratory to perform such investigations for over 30 years and have developed an industry leading reputation for our work and innovation.

MDE has a fully equipped analytical laboratory to produce the chemical and physical data necessary to accurately evaluate the hypotheses for a fire cause. The ignition and combustion characteristics of any material found at the fire scene can be evaluated for its contribution using our cone calorimeter. We use our burn chambers and hoods to conduct practical trials of ignition and combustion sequences. This comprehensive testing allows MDE to test fire cause hypotheses to determine what factors are relevant for the fire.

These same resources are used to assist manufacturers evaluate new and current products for their ignition threshold and combustion characteristics. MDE has one of the few cone calorimeters on the West Coast available for commercial use. We have tested coatings, carpet, veneers, and other materials using UL94  

Examples of fire causation that MDE has evaluated in the past include:

  • Smoldering combustion
  • Auto-ignition and flash point
  • Vapor production and Spontaneous heating
  • Flash fire effects
  • Flame spread
  • Product evaluation

CASE SCENARIO

A fire occurred during the morning break after workers left a work platform in a community pool facility where they were installing new fiberglass HVAC ducts. The workers were blamed for leaving a discarded cigarette on the platform causing the fire. The platform was collected and brought to MDE.  Close inspection of the platform showed the origin of the fire was at/in a paper bucket used to mix the two part resin.

Laboratory experiments showed the temperatures necessary for charring of the paper and other combustibles was possible if the specified ratios of components was not used. The time required for this reaction also matched the timeframe of the fire. Later, statements from the parties working on the platform indicated the field rep demonstrating the use of the products did not measure the components prior to mixing.

GENERAL FORENSIC INVESTIGATIONS

Complex questions sometimes require evaluations that go beyond simple analyses. Often a site investigation is required to identify, collect and preserve the relevant evidence. Sometimes associated data or other information is only available during the time spent with the scene and with witnesses.

Other investigations require intricate planning and protocols to yield the maximum information without compromising the evidence. The comprehensive testing facilities at MDE are available for the scenario testing, exposure testing or non-destructive examination of the evidence. Video, data acquisition and real-time chemical analyses are routinely employed to track the progress of a test.

If destructive testing is required, MDE has the facilities to efficiently and safely extract the desired information from this one-time shot at the evidence necessary to address the questions.   

  • Fire and explosion
    • Chemical incompatibility
    • Spontaneous heating
    • Flammability/combustibility testing
    • Case review/second opinion/reanalysis
  • Construction defect
    • Field investigations
    • Product defect/failure
    • Chemical incompatibility
    • Environmental degradation
    • Improper application/installation
  • Investigational analysis
    • Failure analysis
    • Exposure studies
    • Scenario recreation
    • Reverse engineering/product deformulation
  • Dust, soot, stain evaluation

CASE EXAMPLE

Moisture intrusion into the exterior envelope had caused mold and damage; expected repair costs totaled in the millions. The drywall contractor was accused of no applying the required vapor barrier to the wall board at the time of construction. Field investigation demonstrated the moisture was from leaking hot air ductwork into the interstitial floor spaces. Laboratory analysis documented the presence of the required thickness of vapor barrier primer (as allowed by law) on the interior drywall. The claims against the dry wall contractor were dropped in several of the lawsuits, in others the rewards were substantially reduced.

CONSULTING/CASE REVIEW

Sometimes the failure event is long past and all that remains is a mountain of documentation and other paper related to the event. Sometimes the client is trying to apply the hard-learned lessons of past failures to prevent a recurrence or to improve a product or process. Sometimes the litigation has progressed without adequate expert assistance and the time is now for such interaction. Which ever it is, MDE has the experts to evaluate the information and assist the client in their decision making to solve the issues.

  • Problem solving
    • Manufacturing
  • Process development and improvement
  • Litigation support
    • Liability defense
    • Insurance claims
    • Personal injury claims
    • Case review/second opinion
    • Expert witness/court qualified
      Provide education of litigation team

CASE EXAMPLE

A young man was accused of directly causing a gasoline-fueled flash fire that killed his uncle. Review of the plaintiff’s file revealed some improper interpretation of both scene observations and laboratory analyses. In addition, some evidence was not evaluated at all. A thorough review of the existing work and opinions and additional analysis of all the evidence showed the scenario presented by the nephew was most likely very close to factual. As he first described to on-scene responders, he was not near the origin of the fire when the explosion occurred and was burned as he escaped the inferno by the route he described. In fact, the uncle was the one who most likely purchased the fuel and was using it at the time of the explosion. The jury found in favor of the defense and awarded nothing to plaintiffs. 

TRAINING AND RESEARCH

Experts at MDE are available to provide no cost training in a wide range of topics. Insurance adjusters, attorneys, investigators, students and health workers have all been the recipients of such training over the years. Whether you need a day-long training session on a broad concept or wish to have a luncheon speaker, contact MDE for assistance. 

Occasionally, an investigation is centered on principles not fully documented in the literature. In these cases, MDE performs the necessary research to better understand the underlying principles. This work enables accurate interpretation for the case in hand and the results are generally useful to the forensic community. Such research is often presented at conferences, used in training presentations or published in journal format. Some of the recently published work is listed below.

“Washing Machine Effluent May Provide Clues in Dryer Fire Investigations”, Fire Findings, 1999, 7:4, 4.

“In Search fr the Perfect Container for Fire Debris Evidence”, Fire and Arson Investigator, 2000, 30:3, 21-25.

“Alternative Methods to Collect Ignitable Liquid Residues fro Non-porous Areas such as Concrete”, Fire and Arson Investigator, 2006, 57:1, 43-46.

“The Use of Rated Wall Board Primers as Vapor Barriers”, Washington Defense Trial Lawyers News, 2007, spring.

“Studies if the Dehydration/Calcination of Gypsum Wall Board”, Fire and Materials Conference Proceedings, 2009, 827-839.

“Epoxy Grout and Enzymatic Cleaners, A Question of Compatibility”, TILE Magazine, 2009, Summer, 16-20.

            “FIT-5 Technology Introduction”, Discovery Channel, “BRINK” Series, episode 1, Spring, 2009.

“Confirmation of the Presence of Styrene Butadiene Resin (SBR) polymer in Drywall Primer Applications”, Application Note, Perkin Elmer Fresh, Vol 25, January 2011