What is a Forensic Chemist?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Forensic chemists use laboratory tests to detect the presence of clues like blood or gunpowder residue on items recovered from crime scenes.
Forensic chemists use laboratory tests to detect the presence of clues like blood or gunpowder residue on items recovered from crime scenes.

A forensic chemist is a chemist who applies his or her skills to the analysis of evidence from crime scenes. In addition to performing obvious analyses such as investigations into chemicals found at a crime scene, forensic chemists are involved in DNA analysis, arson investigations, and a variety of other types of forensic activities. Every substance at a crime scene which could contain trace elements of chemicals can find its way to the laboratory bench of a forensic chemist for a closer look.

A forensic chemist might examine samples from a crime scene.
A forensic chemist might examine samples from a crime scene.

Samples of drugs and chemicals collected at a crime scene will be tested by a forensic chemist, even if the identity of the sample seems obvious. When someone is arrested with cocaine, for example, the forensic chemist will test it to confirm that it is cocaine, and to look for traces of chemicals which could act like a fingerprint to link the cocaine to other samples in evidence, or to determine where the cocaine was made, and by whom. Chemists also test unknown substances, determining what they are and whether or not they are dangerous.

Forensic chemists might look for chemicals that would indicate arson in a fire investigation.
Forensic chemists might look for chemicals that would indicate arson in a fire investigation.

Typically, a forensic chemist holds a bachelor of science degree, with additional training in forensics. He or she is capable of using specialized equipment like mass spectrometers which can be used in chemical analysis, and the chemist is also familiar with the protocols which are designed to ensure the integrity of forensic evidence. In addition to working in a lab, a forensic chemist may occasionally be asked to go to the scene of a crime to help collect evidence, and he or she can also testify in court about evidence in a case.

Experts in forensics, including forensic chemists, may be required to testify in court.
Experts in forensics, including forensic chemists, may be required to testify in court.

Some very interesting discoveries can be facilitated through forensic chemistry. For example, if someone drowns, a sample of the fluid in the lungs might be sent to a forensic chemist for analysis, and he or she could provide information about where the water was from, looking for key information like the presence of chlorine, which might indicate that the drowning took place in a pool, or trace elements which indicate that the water is probably marine in origin.

A forensic chemist may examine clothing articles from a crime scene.
A forensic chemist may examine clothing articles from a crime scene.

While a forensic chemist is often viewed as someone who works at the forefront of modern forensic technology, the history of this occupation is actually ancient. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Ancient Chinese all utilized forms of forensic chemistry for tasks such as identifying the traces of poisons. While the field has advanced significantly from this period, the ancient roots of this field bear recognition, as the ancient practice of forensic chemistry laid the groundwork for modern forensics by showing that scientific methods could be applied to crime solving.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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    • Forensic chemists use laboratory tests to detect the presence of clues like blood or gunpowder residue on items recovered from crime scenes.
      By: KaYann
      Forensic chemists use laboratory tests to detect the presence of clues like blood or gunpowder residue on items recovered from crime scenes.
    • A forensic chemist might examine samples from a crime scene.
      By: bradcalkins
      A forensic chemist might examine samples from a crime scene.
    • Forensic chemists might look for chemicals that would indicate arson in a fire investigation.
      By: goodween123
      Forensic chemists might look for chemicals that would indicate arson in a fire investigation.
    • Experts in forensics, including forensic chemists, may be required to testify in court.
      By: Stephen Coburn
      Experts in forensics, including forensic chemists, may be required to testify in court.
    • A forensic chemist may examine clothing articles from a crime scene.
      By: Leah-Anne Thompson
      A forensic chemist may examine clothing articles from a crime scene.