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Testing Labs Improperly Identifying Carbon Black for Fire and Smoke Damage Investigations


Carbon Black analysis by optical microscopy alone is rarely enough for accurate identification. Many laboratories use simple microscopes and even specialized scopes such as the Polarized Light or Phase Contrast Microscopes which cannot adequately provide identification of carbon black.

Carbon black and combustion byproducts (carbonized material) deposited on surfaces can lead to permanent discoloration and “ghosting” effects. Sampling for carbon black on surfaces can be performed by the wipe method. Simply wipe as much area as necessary to darken a collection pad for analysis.

For personnel monitoring or OSHA compliant sampling a pre-weighted 5.0um PVC filter (nuisance dust cassettes) is used to sample the air. Additional analysis by Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) can confirm the presence of carbon black.

Area sampling is commonly performed by 0.1um PC filter. This sampling technique is designed to capture all particles for analysis by electron microscopy. In addition to the analysis for carbon black, EMSL can identify incinerator ash, wood ash, coal/coke and partially burned organic dust. Carbon black may be present, but usually in very low concentrations compared to the partially ashed materials.

When facing a situation where a point of origin is necessary then identification of the partially ashed particles can be the key. In the case of suspected arson, testing for accelerants can also be performed by Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometry (FTIR), Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) and High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC).

“It is important for customers needing carbon black analysis to be sure their samples are being properly analyzed,” reported Paul Cochrane, Marketing Director at EMSL Analytical. “Due to the size of many combustion byproducts, especially carbon black, analysis with light microscopes alone is inconclusive and generally not legally defensible,” Cochrane went on to report.

EMSL performs carbon black and combustion byproducts testing using a combination of techniques in culmination with Electron Microscopy. EMSL provides expert analysis that frequently results in the dismissal of less reliable techniques in court cases. For more information on carbon black testing services contact John Newton at (800)220-3675 Ext. 1243 or

About EMSL Analytical, Inc.
EMSL Analytical is a nationally recognized and locally focused provider of environmental and materials testing services and products to professionals and the general public.


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