Stable isotope ratio mass spectrometry and physical comparison for the forensic examination of grip-seal plastic bags

E. Taylor, James F. Carter, Jenny C. Hill, Carolyn Morton, N. NicDaeid, R. Sleeman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Plastic bags are frequently used to package drugs, explosives and other contraband. There exists, therefore, a requirement in forensic casework to compare bags found at different locations. This is currently achieved almost exclusively by the use of physical comparisons such as birefringence patterns. This paper discusses some of the advantages and shortcomings of this approach, and presents stable isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) as a supplementary tool for effecting comparisons of this nature. Carbon and hydrogen isotopic data are presented for sixteen grip-seal plastic bags from a wide range of sources, in order to demonstrate the range of values which is likely to be encountered. Both isotopic and physical comparison (specifically birefringence) techniques are then applied to the analysis of rolls of bags from different manufacturing lots from a leading manufacturer. Both approaches are able to associate bags from a common production batch. IRMS can be applied to small fragments which are not amenable to physical comparisons, and is able to discriminate bags which could be confused using birefringence patterns alone. Similarly, in certain cases birefringence patterns discriminate bags with similar isotopic compositions. The two approaches are therefore complementary. When more than one isotopically distinct region exists within a bag (e.g. the grip-seal is distinct from the body) the ability to discriminate and associate bags is greatly increased.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)214-220
Number of pages6
JournalForensic Science International
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - 20 May 2008


  • plastic materials
  • polyethylene
  • plastic bag examination
  • birefringence
  • isotope ratio
  • isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS)

Cite this