An atomic force microscopy investigation of plastic wrapping materials of forensic relevance buried in soil environments

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Journal Article
Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2019, 51 (5), pp. 596 - 605
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© 2018, © 2018 Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences. Plastics are one means of disposal of items or remains associated with criminal activity. The surface characteristics of plastic wrapping materials of forensic interest in soil environments have been investigated to determine the environmental factors that have the greatest influence on the degradation process of such polymers. Polyethylene bags and poly(vinyl chloride) sheeting were buried in model environments encompassing different soil types, moisture content, pH and temperature. Atomic force microscopy was used to monitor the changes to the polymer surface at a nanometre level. Over a two-year burial period, the degradation of polyethylene was found to be enhanced by an increased moisture content and an elevated soil pH. The plasticizer content of poly(vinyl chloride) was affected by burial and was observed to leach from the plastic in all environments continually over the burial period. A moist environment was shown to have a more pronounced effect on the removal of plasticizer. A measurement of the surface roughness of plastics using atomic force microscopy has been shown to be sensitive to the burial environment and demonstrates the potential of this technique to measure relatively subtle changes to burial items exposed to different environments.
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