Forensic applications of isotope ratio mass spectrometry--a review

Forensic Sci Int. 2006 Feb 10;157(1):1-22. doi: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2005.03.012.


The key role of a forensic scientist is to assist in determining whether a crime has been committed, and if so, assist in the identification of the offender. Many people hold the belief that a particular item can be conclusively linked to a specific person, place or object. Unfortunately, this is often not achievable in forensic science. In performing their role, scientists develop and test hypotheses. The significance of those hypotheses that cannot be rejected upon completion of all available examinations/analyses is then evaluated. Although one can generally identify the substances present using available techniques, it is generally not possible to distinguish one source of the same substance from another. In such circumstances, although a particular hypothesis cannot be rejected, it cannot be conclusively proven, i.e. the samples could still have originated from different sources. This limitation of not being able to distinguish between sources currently extends to the analysis of other forensic samples including, but not limited to, ignitable liquids, paints, adhesives, textile fibres, plastics, and illicit drugs. Stable isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) is an additional technique that can be utilised to test a given hypothesis. This technique shows the potential to be able to individualise a range of materials of forensic interest. This paper provides a brief description of the technique, followed by a review of the various applications of IRMS in different scientific fields. The focus of this summary is on forensic applications of IRMS, in particular the analysis of explosives, ignitable liquids and illicit drugs.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Archaeology
  • Doping in Sports
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis
  • Explosions
  • Food Analysis
  • Forensic Medicine*
  • Humans
  • Isotopes / analysis
  • Mass Spectrometry / instrumentation
  • Mass Spectrometry / methods*
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / chemistry
  • Plant Physiological Phenomena
  • Quality Control
  • Species Specificity
  • Substance Abuse Detection / methods


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Isotopes
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations