Home News Stories 2009 September Hazardous Materials Forensics

Hazardous Materials Forensics

Extreme Forensics
Analyzing Hazardous Materials


FBI HEAT examiners conduct forensic exams on radiologically-contaminated evidence at one of our partner laboratories. This lab is one of the national laboratories operated by the Department of Energy.
FBI HEAT examiners conduct forensic exams on radiologically-contaminated evidence at one of our partner laboratories.

Last summer, eight people became sick near the reflecting pool by the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. and were taken to a hospital. Later, U.S. Park Service police noticed more than a dozen dead ducks in the pool and in a nearby park. Suspecting a bio-terror attack, the Park Service contacted us, and we arranged to have samples tested. Analysis showed that the ducks were stricken with botulism Type C, which is a naturally-occurring toxin…not terrorism. And the eight hospitalized people, we later discovered, were diagnosed with an unrelated, heat-induced illness.

The FBI experts behind this fast response came from our Laboratory’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Sciences Unit, or CBRNSU for short. They coordinated the transfer of the samples to two government labs that specialize in animals and are equipped to deal with hazardous materials.

CBRNSU was created in 2002 on the heels of the anthrax attacks the previous fall. (And the Amerithrax case has been one of its biggest investigations.) The unit’s mission? To develop and maintain the FBI’s ability to conduct or direct high-quality forensic exams of potentially hazardous chemical, biological, and radiological/nuclear materials and all related evidence.

“The threat facing the U.S. today is three-pronged,” explains Supervisory Special Agent Margaret Eason, chief of the unit. “Chemical agents, including traditional chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial chemicals…biological agents capable of causing infectious diseases and special agriculture threats…and radiological materials or nuclear yield devices, including materials that could be used in a radioactive dispersal device or in an improvised nuclear device.”

The unit’s strategy to combat these threats is also three-pronged,” adds Eason.

  • First, because the FBI Lab is not configured to handle hazardous materials, CBRNSU has partnered with public and private labs around the nation that can handle it and have the expertise to analyze it. As part of the agreement to partner with us, we ensure these labs follow FBI Lab standards and approved protocols.
  • Second, because we still have to conduct traditional forensic exams (involving latent prints or DNA, for example) on evidence contaminated by possible hazardous materials, CBRNSU created the Hazardous Evidence Analysis Team, or HEAT. HEAT is comprised of more than 70 highly-trained forensic examiners from various FBI Lab disciplines who can be deployed as needed to our partner laboratories to perform these exams safely.
  • And third, CBRNSU develops and validates methods to analyze hazardous evidence to ensure it meets legal admissibility standards. The unit has an active R&D program, working with scientific experts inside and outside the FBI.

Eason’s unit is made up of highly-skilled scientists, special agents with science backgrounds (like herself), and operations specialists.

CBRNSU stays busy, often deploying members of HEAT to respond to white powder letters, suspected ricin cases, and other incidents. (Fortunately, only a small percentage of the unit’s cases end up involving actual hazardous materials.) And when not physically on-site, the unit offers its expertise over the phone to FBI field offices and to our Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate and collaborates with our Lab’s Hazardous Materials Response Units. CBRNSU also provides scientific assessments for FBI and U.S. Intelligence Community products.

- Accomplishments involving chemical, biological, and radiological threats