Who doesn't love a good mystery? Many popular books, movies, and tv shows focus on crime scene investigation and have helped to develop an interest in forensic science for us all. The crime scene and the methods used to collect and analyze evidence intrigue us and make us want to solve the mystery or problem. Forensics can be used to solve murders, burglaries, forgeries, etc., but forensics can also be used to solve environmental crimes. Environmental forensics requires a cross-disciplinary approach that includes understanding the sources of environmental contaminants, their transport through key ecosystems and their subsequent impact on humans and other organisms. High concentrations of contaminants such as magnesium, calcium, zinc or manganese are now known to play a role in the onset and progression of chronic diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The consequences of pollutants on our bodies and our environment can be critical.
One way to introduce students to environmental forensics in the classroom is with case study kits. For example, Orion Scientific has a kit called Contamination of Carter Creek Environmental Forensics which teaches students chemistry and its relevance to the community. For this case study, students work for the Environmental Protection Services to locate the source of pollution at Carter Creek and suggest a method of eliminating the problem. Protocols, procedures and report forms are included for students to record their findings. So, not only do they locate the source of pollution and suggest how to eliminate it, but they also must write a report and communicate their findings.
For students interested in pursuing a career in environmental forensics, here are a few things they should know. While there are different types of forensic scientists, most of them perform many of the same duties, like using chemical methods to test evidence taken from crime scenes in the laboratory. They must be detail-oriented, keeping records and writing reports on their techniques and findings. Some may collect samples from the scene themselves, cataloging the evidence and following established procedures to store and preserve it correctly. Environmental forensic scientists may also examine the geology and hydrology (water features and flow) of contaminated sites and surrounding areas to determine how pollutants have traveled through them, and where they came from.
While this career is science-based, communication skills are also very important. Forensic scientists must write reports of their findings and be able to explain their reports to lawyers. They may also be called upon in court to explain the investigative process in detail, including which samples were tested, how they were tested, the reliability of those tests, what the results were, and why they're relevant.
Environmental forensic scientists are valuable professionals who help protect public health and the environment. Unfortunately, the environment is subject to the "tragedy of the commons", and contamination is often seen as "collateral damage" - the price paid for civilization. Forensic scientists help ensure that those who contaminate the environment illegally are discovered and brought to justice. They may also save taxpayers cleanup dollars by identifying who should be legally responsible for cleanup costs.