Scientists have said that the toothpaste preservative triclosan could help crime scene investigators preserve evidence of arson.
It would be the first evidence preservative for traces of gasoline and other ignitable fluids, or flame "accelerants," commonly used in arson, according to John V Goodpaster, PhD, an international expert who reported on evidence of triclosan's effectiveness.
"We may finally have a substance that enables crime scene investigators to preserve traces of gasoline and other fire starters in the charred remains of buildings long enough to determine whether a fire was arson," Goodpaster said.
"It could not only help law enforcement officials catch criminals, but also reveal the true scope of the arson problem," he added.
Goodpaster, who is with Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, traces the idea for enlisting anti-microbials as arson fighters to concerns expressed by staff at the Indiana State Police Laboratory in Indianapolis.
They knew that microbes were degrading suspected arson samples and could tell that gasoline was probably in a particular sample. But the gasoline was so degraded that they couldn't draw a definitive conclusion.
Searching for a solution to the problem, Goodpaster and graduate student Dee Ann Turner began testing various anti-microbial agents as preservatives. Those agents ranged from household chlorine bleach to iodine to hydrogen peroxide. Finally, they tested triclosan, which is in many consumer products, such as antibacterial hand soaps, toothpaste and even furniture and toys.
Goodpaster described it as being "tremendously effective".
Under the supervision of the Indianapolis Fire Department, he and Turner threw Molotov cocktails - bottles of gasoline that shatter on impact in a ball of flame. They then collected soil samples just like an arson investigator would do at a fire scene.
The sampling was done in real-world conditions, rather than laboratory settings that differ from the outdoor environment. Turner and Goodpaster stored the samples for 60 days to simulate a typical timeframe that evidence would sit in a crime lab due to a backlog. Then they did standard analyses for gasoline.
"The results with triclosan were amazing.
"It worked quite well, preserving the gasoline so that it showed up in the analysis," Goodpaster said.
He said that using triclosan is easy. It involves just pouring the preservative onto suspected arson samples until the material is soaked.
Arson investigators could start adding triclosan right now. But Goodpaster's lab is looking into development of a commercial triclosan solution custom-tailored for crime labs.