Finally – The Myth of the “Gold Standard” is Beginning to Unravel!

As reported in the Los Angeles Times article on November 10, 2013, an Orange County Crime Lab error leads to inaccurate blood alcohol test results that could affect hundreds of DUI cases.

19363870_mYou ask, Why is this important?   Because for years Gas Chromatography,  the process of how law enforcement crime labs test most blood samples for alcohol content, has been referred to as the “Gold Standard” by crime lab personnel.    The term “gold standard” is nothing more than crime lab personnel’s attempt to cloak the gas chromatography process in secrecy so that the public, as well as many defense lawyers, would not question the process, or understand it for that matter.  My experience tells me they don’t understand it either.

But just like the mighty and powerful Wizard in the Wizard of Oz, once the curtain was pulled back by a curious Toto, everyone was then able to see that the Wizard was not so mighty and powerful after all.  Likewise, Gas Chromatography is not the “gold standard” that the government would like the public to believe it is.

The truth is, Gas Chromatography is nothing more than a process that separates one volatile organic compound from another.  If you remember from chemistry class in high school, volatile compounds are those that change form from a solid or liquid to a vapor.

Volatile organic compounds have a high vapor pressure at ordinary, room-temperature conditions. Their high vapor pressure results from a low boiling point, which causes large numbers of molecules to evaporate from the liquid or solid form of the compound and enter the surrounding air (as vapor).

Not to get too technical, but in the Gas Chromatography process, the ethanol (which is drinking alcohol) molecules in the blood sample evaporate into a vapor, and the ethanol molecules in the vapor are then pushed through a tube (known as the column) by a carrier gas; and while being pushed through the tube, the molecules of one organic compound (i.e. ethanol) separate from molecules of another volatile organic compound, so that the molecules of each separate organic compound exit the tube at different times (the separation is caused by chemicals reacting to the coating on the inside of the tube).

Once the molecules of a specific organic compound exit the tube (column) they enter a flame ionization detector and are burned.  When the molecules are burned they create ions that are measured by the ionization detector, thereafter a result is calculated and converted to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that is supposed to represent the amount of alcohol that was in the person’s blood at the time of driving.  But does it?

The fact that the molecules of one organic compound separate from molecules of another organic compound and exit the tube (column) at different times is extremely important.

The amount of time that it takes the molecules of an organic compound to exit the tube is how the gas chromatogram machine identifies one organic compound from another.

Yes, the gas chromatogram is really a dumb machine.  It cannot tell one actual organic compound from another.  It can only measure the time it takes the molecules of an organic compound to exit the tube and burn up in the flame ionization detector, and compare it to the time it takes molecules from a different organic compound to exit the tube and burn up in the flame ionization detector.  The difference in times that it takes the molecules of different organic compounds to exit the tube and burn up is how the gas chromatogram machine identifies one organic compound from another.

For example, if organic compound “VOC #1” exits the tube and burns up in 1.5 minutes from the time it entered the tube, and organic compound “VOC #2” exits the tube and burns up in 2 minutes from the time it entered the tube, the gas chromatogram machine only knows that there were two different exit times – 1.5 minutes and 2 minutes, and therefore they must be two different organic compounds – solely because the time it took to exit the tube and burn up were different.

The gas chromatogram machine is “taught” or programmed to “name” everything that comes out of the tube and burns up at the 1.5 minute mark as “x” and everything that comes out of the tube and burns up at the 2 minute mark as “y”.   The only thing the that machine knows about organic compounds “x” and “y” is that they came out of the tube and burned up at different times – that’s it!  And therefore they must be different.

You might be asking:  what if there are two different organic compounds that exit the tube and burn up in the flame ionization detector at the same time?

Well, you just identified one of the problems of using gas chromatography to analyze blood samples for alcohol content.

There are literally thousands of different volatile organic compounds that exist and many of them can have the same exit time.  If two different organic compounds exit the tube and burn up in the flame ionization detector at the same time, the gas chromatogram machine will identify the two as the same organic compound solely because they exited the tube and burned up at the same time – even though in reality, they are different.

If you think the processes of gas chromatography I outlined in the previous paragraphs sound complicated, you are right!   I wrote a very general overview on purpose trying not to get too technical.

The fact is the entire gas chromatography process is extremely complex, and there are many individual sub-processes that go into the overall process itself.  Each of the sub-processes can individually, as well as cumulatively, affect the accuracy and reliability of the final gas chromatography result, which is the accused person’s alleged blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

For example:

-The reliability and accuracy of the final gas chromatography result can be negatively affected by how the original blood sample is maintained and stored (this is before the blood sample even gets to the gas chromatogram machine).

-The reliability and accuracy of the final gas chromatography result can also be negatively affected by how the blood sample is prepared prior to the gas chromatography testing process.

-The reliability and accuracy of the final gas chromatography result can also be negatively affected by how the gas chromatogram machine is set up – Yes, the machine must be taught to differentiate a molecule from one volatile organic compound from the molecule of another volatile organic compound.

-The reliability and accuracy of the final gas chromatography result can also be negatively affected by how the machine is calibrated to inject the vapors into the machine.

-The reliability and accuracy of the final gas chromatography result can also be negatively affected by the pressure of the carrier gas that pushes the molecules through the tube.  Too much or too little pressure affects the time it takes to exit the tube and burn up in the flame ionization detector, thus affecting how the organic compound is identified.

-The reliability and accuracy of the final gas chromatography result can also be negatively affected by how the machine is calibrated to measure the ions resulting from the burned up molecules.

-The reliability and accuracy of the final gas chromatography result can also be negatively affected by how the machine is calibrated to calculate results.

The above factors can individually affect the accuracy and reliability of the final gas chromatography result; however even minor errors in each of those factors can cumulatively affect the accuracy and reliability of the final result.   And the above list of seven factors is not exhaustive, meaning that there are other factors that can also affect the accuracy and reliability of the final gas chromatography result.

The point is this:  Gas Chromatography is not the “gold standard” that law enforcement and the government would like the public to believe it is.   Far from it.

The fact that the Orange County Crime Lab has disclosed these errors, errors that they are now trying to down play, is a sign that the “gold standard” myth is unraveling.

Like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz, whose curtain was pulled back and the truth became evident, the curtain of secrecy with these law enforcement crime labs throughout the State of California is being torn down.

I argue that many more errors exist than the crime labs have admitted to date.  And because of these errors, many innocent people have been wrongfully convicted of crimes for the sake of politics and funding.

Remember, for every DUI arrest and conviction, the law enforcement agency, the crime labs, as well as the courts, receive funding from federal grant money.