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700 South Industrial Way
Seattle, WA 98108

Forensic Engineering and Laboratories

Forensic Laboratories

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)
  • 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 including 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
    • 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 assists 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.

Clandestine drug laboratories manufacturing methamphetamine and marijuana refining laboratories leave 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 assessments for contamination and verify they are clean after remediation. MDE is one of only a handful of laboratories to carry the dual certification for sampling and analysis.

We also have the background and instrumentation to characterize unknown material. With countless possible scenarios, experience can be the key to solving the puzzle. Some past investigations include spousal/family/neighbor conflicts and poisonings, white powder scares in mail and public locations, foreign materials found in restaurant foods, personal care product tampering, and pet poisoning.

CASE EXAMPLE

Several years ago, the nation suffered an anthrax mail attack 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, and determine which ones presented real hazard. Luckily, most were determined to be readily available powders, and were not particularly toxic. A few were identified as somewhat hazardous materials, which were then 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 types of fire debris evidence potentially collected during 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 responds to the scene of the fire to perform necessary investigations, documentation, evidence collection and other ancillary duties to ensure a challenge-proof result.

The laboratory has assessed explosives formulations for destructive potential, and has also analyzed post-blast evidence to identify the original explosive formulation in the explosive device. MDE Analysts received their training at the FBI and AFT laboratories and have over 35 years of experience.

Coupling our instrumental capability with our decades of 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. State-of-the-art instrumentation includes gas chromatography mass spectrometry, Fourier transform infrared spectrometry, microscopy, scanning electron microscopy with elemental analysis, and thermal gravimetric analysis.

CASE EXAMPLE

MDE Forensics assisted a foreign corporation by reverse engineering a portable fire suppression device so it could be imported into the US. Little information was available on the device formulation, as it was produced in Eastern Europe with no supporting literature or documentation. Chemical analysis, live testing, identification of the reaction byproducts, and corrosion evaluation were all conducted. Potential patent infringement issues were also addressed. The device is currently being introduced into the US market 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 adding the wrong lubricant to a reservoir. In some cases, vandalism of the fuel system of a 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 a plugged filter or injector, phase separation of components, observed contamination of the product, or failure of the system to operate correctly, the solution necessitates analysis of the products in the system.

CASE EXAMPLE

The intumescent (fire protective) coating on a new Metro transit station detached from the structure before the station was opened. MDE provided on-site evaluation, laboratory analysis and exposure testing data which demonstrated the cause for the failure. Based on our recommendations, the entire steel structure was stripped and coated with a traditional paint system. Sprinklers were installed to meet fire codes. Solvent trapping and interface effects leading to the delamination caused the failure.

POLYMERS AND COATINGS

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

Failure analysis begins at the site of the failure. MDE specialists’ vast experience responding to the site of a failure ensures recording of the all-important background information, and the proper collection and preservation of the failed components.

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 we’ve tested the material and collected the data, MDE scientists 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. Materials investigated in past failure analyses include adhesives, piping and tubing, paints and primers, intumescent coatings, fittings, medical devices, building components, sealants and caulking.

CASE EXAMPLE

The kitchen tile floor in a newly opened high-end restaurant began having issues within a few months of opening as 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 restaurant blamed the installer for faulty application in both failures.

After reviewing the grout chemistry, listed incompatible materials, and maintenance records, an exposure experiment was initiated to study the effect of used cooking oils treated with the enzymatic cleaners used on the floor. The enzymes in the floor cleaner converted the used oils into oxidative by-products that chemically attacked the epoxy causing it to lose its integrity. The maintenance products and janitorial procedures used by the restaurant had caused the grout to fail. The installer was not responsible for the failure.

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 blended fuel with cooler temperatures and maintain a strict quality control program for incoming biodiesel.

MICROANALYSIS

There exists another universe at a scale too small to appreciate or evaluate without assisted vision. Much of the evidence for the root cause of a failure exists at this scale. Therefore, micro-examinations are at the core of many 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 every situation, including stereomicroscopy, polarized light microscopy, EPI microscopy/metalascope, and scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive x-ray detectors.

The situations that often give rise to the need for micro-examinations are diverse. Some past investigations include trace evidence evaluation and criminal defense casework, product evaluation, contaminant characterization, and structural characterization of metals, paints, and coatings.

CASE EXAMPLE

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. Misleading advertising, labeling and packaging of the original material illustrated/demonstrated the improper installation. Microanalysis results for the same 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 manufacturer was held responsible for the error and subsequent injuries.

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 happens is the basis of failure analysis. This broad definition encompasses everything from design and manufacturing defects, to installation and maintenance issues and over-loading and exposure degradation. MDE has investigated and resolved product failures for over 30 years. Our years of experience and laboratory capabilities allow us to characterize the key factors initiating failure and identify the root cause.

Successful investigations often require on-site investigation and information gathering. Exemplar samples of non-failed material are often compared to the failed item to identify the key differences; these differences often suggest the cause of failure. In addition to the full range of analytical instrumentation, MDE also operates 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 varies. Potential causes begin with manufacturing, including improper design, contamination or processing errors. Problems with shipping, storage and installation also contribute to the root cause of failure. On the consumer end, exposure, maintenance and abuse contribute to premature failure in many materials. 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, and 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 failed, resulting in large claims for water damage and system replacement. Identifying the root causes for the failures, the long term expectancy of existing systems, and repair options required extensive on-site investigations, a review of manufacturing records, detailed laboratory analysis, long-term exposure studies and a systems redesign.  In some cases, mechanical deficiencies caused the failure, some failed after contact with incompatible materials, while others failed due to substandard installation practices. MDE provided 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, one must evaluate many factors in order to accurately identify the root cause for the ignition and subsequent fire spread. MDE’s laboratory has performed such investigations for over 30 years, developing an industry-leading reputation for our work and innovation.

The fully equipped analytical laboratory produces the chemical and physical data necessary to accurately evaluate the hypotheses for a fire cause. Ignition and combustion characteristics of materials 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.

We use these same resources to assist manufacturers in evaluating 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.

Scenarios in which fire testing was useful in MDE evaluation in the past include smoldering combustion, auto-ignition and flash point, vapor production and explosive environments, spontaneous combustion/self-heating, flash fire effects, accelerated and incendiary fires, flame spread, and product evaluation.

CASE EXAMPLE

A fire occurred at a community pool facility during the morning break, after workers left a work platform where they were installing new fiberglass HVAC ducts. A discarded cigarette on the platform left the workers to blame for the fire. The platform was collected and brought to MDE.  Upon close inspection, 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 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, circumstances require a site investigation to identify, collect and preserve the relevant evidence. Sometimes associated data or other vital information can only be recovered 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. MDE provides scenario testing, exposure testing, and the non-destructive examination of evidence at our comprehensive testing facilities. Video, data acquisition and real-time chemical analyses are routinely employed to track the progress of a test.

Some examples of scenario testing studies conducted at MDE in the past include fire and explosion (chemical incompatibility, spontaneous heating, flammability/combustibility testing, vapor explosions), construction defect (product defect/failure/design, chemical incompatibility, environmental degradation improper application/installation), and investigational analysis (failure analysis, exposure studies, scenario recreation, reverse engineering/product deformulation).

CASE EXAMPLE

Moisture intrusion into the exterior envelopes of a condominium caused mold and damage; expected repair costs totaled in the millions. The drywall contractor was accused of not applying the required vapor barrier primer to the wall board at the time of construction. Field investigation demonstrated the moisture came from leaking dryer-air ductwork into the interstitial floor spaces. Laboratory analysis documented the presence of the required thickness of vapor barrier primer (as mandated by law) on the interior drywall. Extensive controlled testing of several vapor barrier primers demonstrated the manufacturer application directions were inadequate to result in a finished product that met specified performance criteria. The claims against the dry wall contractor were dropped in several of the lawsuits, and in others the rewards were substantially reduced. 

CONSULTING/CASE REVIEW

Occasionally, MDE becomes involved in an investigation long after the fact. Some of the original evidence may not be available, or litigation has progressed without expert assistance and it is time for intuition. Whatever the state of the investigation, MDE has the experts to evaluate available information and assist the client in solving their issues.

CASE EXAMPLE

A young man accused of directly causing a gasoline-fueled flash fire that killed his uncle went on trial. Upon review of the plaintiff’s file – four years after the fire – improper interpretations of both scene observations and laboratory analyses were found. In addition, some evidence was not evaluated at all. A thorough review of the existing work and opinions, coupled with additional analysis of all the evidence, validated the nephew’s scenario. 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 quickly found in favor of the defense.

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 at hand, and the results often become 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”, FireFindings, 1999, 7:4, 4.

“In Search fr the Perfect Container for Fire Debris Evidence”, Fire and ArsonInvestigator, 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 TrialLawyers 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