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Canadian chemists fingerprint oil to catch ocean polluters

Chemists at Environment Canada in New Brunswick have standardized the process that connects oil collected from the ocean to the ships that dump oil.



HALIFAX—Ships illegally dumping oil off Canada’s coasts are having a harder time getting away with the crime because of a new process used by government scientists.

Chemists at Environment Canada in New Brunswick have standardized the process that connects oil collected from the ocean to the ships that dump the pollutants.

The process, known as chemical fingerprinting, compares oil samples with the oil found on a ship, said Art Cook, head of chemistry at the Atlantic Laboratory of Environment Testing in Moncton.

“Each oil is unique because each source of oil has different constituents and different starting materials,” Cook said in a recent telephone interview.
Oil consists of thousands of different chemicals and each has its own unique characteristics that act as a fingerprint. That allows chemists to pinpoint the source of the oil when compared to a sample from a ship suspected of spilling pollutants.

Researchers are able to identify the type of oil—like crude oil, gasoline and diesel—by determining its boiling point.

“Different types of ships use different types of oil. So investigators can then take the type of oil and look at when the sample was taken and determine what ships were in the area at that time,” Cook said.

He said the process has been paying off.

“Any evidence that we’ve provided that shows that there was a match … has either lead to a fine or a conviction.”

He said officers have prosecuted about half a dozen ships the past two years using chemical fingerprinting as evidence.

The process takes about two or three weeks to complete from the time the sample is collected to the detection of a match.

And while Cook serves as a watchman of Atlantic waters, he said Environment Canada’s Vancouver office is doing the same surveillance in the Pacific.

Chemical fingerprinting isn’t a new idea, said Cook. In fact, the process has been in development for more than 20 years, but Cook and his team helped refine and standardize the process so that it can be used in collaboration with police and wildlife enforcement procedures to successfully prosecute polluters.

Thousands of vessels pass through waters on Canada’s east coast each year. It’s also home to millions of sea birds that are susceptible to oil’s harmful effects.

Oil is readily absorbed into birds feathers and decreases their insulation from the cold, which can lead to hypothermia and death, Environment Canada says.

Cook said this method of identifying the source of oil is a crucial step in prosecuting ships and keeping Canada’s waters, birds and marine life untainted.

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