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Medium Petroleum Distillates: These Ignitable Liquids May-Or May Not- Be Acclerants. Fire Findings. Volume 5 Number 4. Fall 1997.

Abstract: This article examines petroleum distillates and how to determine whether they were used as accelerants. Petroleum is plant matter that has decomposed under the earth's surface. The process takes ten to twenty million years. Once the petroleum is taken from the ground, it is distilled or cracked into different components. Some of the products produced are gasoline, kerosene, and fuel oils. Petroleum is comprised of hydrocarbons - hydrogen and carbon atoms. When hydrocarbons acquire more carbon atoms, they become heavier and turn to liquids. Liquid forms of petroleum are less volatile and are more likely to leave residue at a fire scene. This is the opposite of gases, which rarely leave residue.

If lab results conclude that a medium petroleum distillate is present in a sample, this simply means that a product containing 8 to 12 carbons was present at the fire scene. This does not, however, conclude that an accelerant was used. Investigators must make that determination. If the sample was taken from a location that should not contain any sort of petroleum distillate, than someone probably used an accelerant to purposely start a fire. If there were legitimate reasons for a petroleum distillate to be present, than an accelerant might not have been used.

There are many materials that fall into the different classes of petroleum distillates. ASTM publishes a standard on the subject entitled E1387 Standard Test Method For Ignitable Liquid Residue In Extracts From Fire Debris Samples By Gas Chromatography.

For more information, contact:
Fire Findings L.L.C.
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PO Box 8637
Benton Harbor, MI 49023
Voice: (269) 925-2200
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