Scientists Review the Science of Chemical Forensics and Potential Applications in Chemical Weapons Investigations

24 June 2016
Participants at the Scientific Advisory Board workshop, which was held in in Helsinki, Finland from 20-22 June 2016.

Participants at the Scientific Advisory Board workshop, which was held in in Helsinki, Finland from 20-22 June 2016.

The science and applications of chemical forensics and where they may be relevant to Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) implementation was the focus of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) workshop held in Helsinki, Finland from 20 to 22 June.

“The SAB’s findings will help identify tools and methodologies that could enhance forensic capabilities of laboratories that analyse chemicals relevant to the Chemical Weapons Convention, ultimately making violations of the Convention increasingly difficult to hide,” explained Dr Christopher Timperley, the SAB’s Chairperson.

The workshop gathered 56 scientists from across the globe to discuss applications of chemical forensics and how they may be valuable for OPCW activities. Chemical forensics is a scientific discipline that aims to obtain information from chemical remnants relevant to investigative, legal and intelligence questions.

“Just as fingerprints and DNA provide unique signatures that can be used to identify individuals, chemical samples also provide distinctive signatures, for example, through their impurities or isotopic ratios,” said Jonathan Forman, OPCW Science Policy Advisor and Secretary to the SAB.   “Combining this type of information with other data sources can help ascertain the origin of a chemical agent.”

OPCW experts described their experiences from chemical weapons related investigations, including those taking place in the Syrian Arab Republic. Participants then discussed chemical weapon analysis and broader applications of chemical forensics in law enforcement, biomedical sample toxicology, chemical source identification and reconstruction of past events (such as in the field of chemical archaeology). This review proved useful for discerning the state of the field and facilitating a better understanding of how methods and tools discussed could benefit the OPCW and its Designated Laboratories.

The workshop was organised jointly by the OPCW and Verifin (the Finnish Institute for Verification of the CWC), and made possible through generous support from the European Union.

This workshop is the first of four to be convened during 2016 and 2017 to inform the drafting of the SAB’s report on Developments in Science and Technology, which will be presented during the 2018 Fourth Review Conference on the Operation of the CWC.

The Scientific Advisory Board consists of twenty-five independent experts from the OPCW Member States. It advises the OPCW Director-General on science and technology issues relevant to the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), including investigations of alleged use.For more details: