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Crime Science

How Hair Can be Used To Track Where You've Been 133

Posted by samzenpus
from the hair-papers-please dept.
First time accepted submitter kandelar writes "PBS recently ran a story about how some scientists are using human hair to trace where a person has been. The combinations of different isotopes in water make for somewhat unique signatures from place to place. These isotopes get placed in growing hair strands which can then be traced back to identify where a person has been."
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How Hair Can be Used To Track Where You've Been

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  • by ls671 (1122017) on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @10:52PM (#41689063) Homepage

    This has been done for year, it isn't a new concept.

    • by rockout (1039072)

      I even heard about it in 1991 from a very reliable source: Johnny Utah

      "The beaches are always being closed because of waste spills, right? And surfers are territorial, they stick to certain breaks. If we can get some hair samples, and get a match to a certain beach, we'd know which break the Ex-Presidents surf. You buyin' this?"

    • This has been done for year, it isn't a new concept.

      For example, on Ötzi the Iceman.

      Going in the opposite direction, I know EXACTLY where the cat has been. How can one small animal shed so much?

    • by rhsanborn (773855)
      I wonder how things like bottled water, soda, beer affect the results. Does it suddenly look like I spent time in Kentucky because I drink bourbon?
  • Wooo hooo (Score:5, Funny)

    by Mitreya (579078) <mitreya@gmailCHICAGO.com minus city> on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @10:53PM (#41689065)
    Bald people no longer need a tinfoil hat?
    • by jhoegl (638955)
      Remember to shave your pubes!
      • by Anonymous Coward

        ...and, as the technique is likely to be adaptable, rip out your nails.

      • This explains why porn stars are all completely shaved. *nobody* needs to know exactly where those body parts have been.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Except that pretty much anything that applies to testing of hear applies to all hair and nails. Pubic hair works just as well as hair from your head or arm, its just generally shorter. Ask anyone who has had a REAL drug test (not the easily fakable piss in a cup type) If you don't have any hair on your body, they can just clip your nails and get a longer history.

      --BitZtream

    • by HnT (306652)

      Instead tinfoil bodysuits for everyone!

    • by trout007 (975317)

      If you are bald you just might be a terrorist.

  • Perrier (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @10:59PM (#41689107)

    My hair would say I've been in southern France for a long time.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Ãd like to see your face when they tell youÂve been drinking bottled tap water al along.

    • by JSBiff (87824)

      Is all the food you eat cooked with Perrier?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @11:00PM (#41689117)

    We eat food and drink water.
    Food comes from multiple sources, some transported large distances.
    This will distort results significently and reduce the accuracy of the claimed results.

  • They laughed at me when I would drink nothing but Evian or, in a pinch, Perrier. Now my hair proves nothing about where I've been.

  • by WillAdams (45638) on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @11:06PM (#41689163) Homepage

    where the protagonists are would-be thieves or revolutionaries who seem to have all the superstitiousness of medieval peasants, but it turns out that it's merely behaviour to defend against such high-tech genetic snooping.

  • I knew a... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Genda (560240) <mariet@go[ ]et ['t.n' in gap]> on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @11:07PM (#41689165) Journal

    Red headed girl who was able to accurately identify where her boyfriend has been when she discovered a blond pubic hair in his briefs... he wasn't blond. I believe this technology has been around for a while now.

    • That just proves someone else may have been wearing his undies.
      • by Genda (560240) <mariet@go[ ]et ['t.n' in gap]> on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @11:57PM (#41689487) Journal

        That's right Sweety, I was just being a gentleman... I was driving home and bam there she was running down the street with her pants on fire, so I stopped the car, ran out, and patted her out then gallantly offered her my briefs. She looked cold! I asked her if she needed to go to the hospital, and she said no, just home, so I took her home, and got my briefs back, and that's how the pubic hair got there. I guess I'm just a Boy Scout at heart!

        Unless there's a kinky thief going around borrowing people's panties, you gotta tap dance real hard to keep from catching a frying pan with your face

  • Work,
    Home,
    Work,
    Home, Supermarket, Wine bar,
    Work,
    Home,
    Work,
    Home,
    Home,
    Work,
    etc.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This could have an interesting impact on cold cases. Fortunately, I expect this will quickly find disgrace like previous forms of hair and fiber analysis.

    Globalization has made the world much smaller, with most goods mass produced in such volume with such great consistency that matches are increasingly probable.

  • I am skeptical (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @11:18PM (#41689231)
    I say that because this kind of technology has been around for many years. But hair or otherwise, location by isotope has so far turned out to be a boondoggle.

    For example, for years TV shows (and the FBI themselves) claimed that they could trace ammunition to the manufacturer by the particular isotopic composition of the lead in bullet fragments.

    False. It just isn't reliable. They did it for years, and it just doesn't work. The better the technology got, the more unreliable it was shown to be. Lead formulations change; suppliers change; the very ore from which the lead is refined, varies even from the same mine. Convictions were overturned.

    In some ways, it parallels the evolution of DNA as evidence: it is far, far less reliable than it was first made out to be. Not only is it ridiculously easily contaminated, it can be deliberately planted, even more easily.
    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      Lead formulations change; suppliers change; the very ore from which the lead is refined, varies even from the same mine. Convictions were overturned.

      Obviously there are major problems with trying to link hair to a very specific location, but all water treatment plants are required to take samples at regular intervals.
      This doesn't account for any trace accumulated from the pipes between the water treatment plant and [where ever], but it does provide a reliable baseline that bullet manufacturers don't have.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Obviously there are major problems with trying to link hair to a very specific location, but all water treatment plants are required to take samples at regular intervals.
        This doesn't account for any trace accumulated from the pipes between the water treatment plant and [where ever], but it does provide a reliable baseline that bullet manufacturers don't have.

        It doesn't do any such thing, because water samples are disposed of after analysis.

      • by TheCarp (96830)

        I would be absolutely shocked if any water treatment facility was actually testing the isotope composition of their water on a regular basis.

        In fact, the only way I wouldn't be shocked, would be if the governor or someone else high in state politics or the water resource authority owned the testing company. In which case, all bets are off.

    • by raind (174356)

      Wonder if the hair drug tests are reliable, just lost a job when they took some hair from me and found marijuana metabolites in it. Well that part was true anyway.

    • I RFTA, and I didn't see the citations to the peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the reliability of this technique. I also didn't see any cites to case law where these results have been found to be admissible in court.

      Of course it depends to some extent on how the results are being used. If they are being used for purposes of exclusion of suspects, or as a means of narrowing a search, reliability or admissibility may have yet to be tested. But sooner or later they will be. I just hope it happens before
      • Here's one reference in the literature about the technique (co-authored by the same guy featured in TFA):

        Ehleringer, J.R., Bowen, G.J., Chesson, L.A., West, A.G., Podlesak, D.W., Cerling, T.E. (2008). From the Cover: Hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios in human hair are related to geography. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(8), 2788-2793. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0712228105 (geolocation based on oxygen isotopes in hair)

        Notice that isotope analysis indicates that a person was or was not in a

        • According to the abstract, their model "explains more than 85% of observed variation". So yes, it may be useful narrowing things down in an investigation, but this is a long way from being a tracking tool, let alone qualifying as an admissible forensic result. And judging from the cites It also looks like a lot of the interest in this has more to do with tracking movements of animals, not people, which is a lot more reasonable.

          FWIW, I used to do a lot of laser spectroscopy work, so this is not entirely f
  • by srjh (1316705) on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @11:21PM (#41689245)

    What? These results can't be right.

    I've never even been to Kilmarnock.

  • The 15-year logos! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @11:27PM (#41689291)

    By gum, we need a meta-story that summarizes the fantastic 15-year anniversary logos that we've been enjoying this month when the celebrations come to an end.

    They've been great. Middle-earth? Braille? Mysterious crypto-patterns? Imagination! Experience! Effort!

    We true Slashdotters must all appreciate the effort put in; we should therefore demand a forum to discuss and congratulate the various artists.

    Who's with me? Vote this post up! I'm AC, so there's no karma-whoring here! Vote this post up to show: we want a story about the logos!

  • I've just ate a bag of skittles that was made in the USA. But I've never been to the USA before.... That's nearly half way around the world.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Be careful. You are an Arizona fruit drink and a hoodie away from real troub... oh, wait, you don't live in Florida?
      Nevermind.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I've just ate a bag of skittles that was made in the USA. But I've never been to the USA before.... That's nearly half way around the world.

      Just some friendly advice, but generally speaking here in the US we eat the candy, not the bag.

  • Umm.. (Score:2, Redundant)

    by SuperCharlie (1068072)
    So bring me some water from asia and when I drink it Ive been there? I believe the test, if accurate, proves where the water is from.. not necessarily here you have been... just sayin...
  • Ehleringer realized that what an animal eats and drinks does get recorded—in its tissues.

    Another astonishing cutting edge information—Earth is round!
  • by FairAndHateful (2522378) on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @11:36PM (#41689349)
    Holy crap, the holistic people have been on to something... Except they're not healing you with "trace elements", they're simply disguising where you've been so the bad germs can't find you!
  • by Anonymous Coward

    If used improperly, i.e. to determine where any individual has been, such a thing cannot be used to ascertain where you've been at any time prior to the eruption of any individual strand from its follicle. It MIGHT, if what has been written is true, determine where the food and/or water a person has consumed came from, or if anthropologists were using the technique to identify the migration patterns of ancient humans before the rise of international, then intercontinental trade.

    A quick census of my kitchen

    • by westlake (615356)

      A quick census of my kitchen and fridge would imply that I have been to Ecuador, (where my bananas came from,) France, (where most of the water I drink was bottled,) Spain, (where the grapes in my Sangria were grown,)

      That census of your fridge can expose your income, cultural, ethnic and religious background, age, health and dietary restrictions or preferences of every sort.

      It costs from 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon to purchase bottled water than it does to purchase a gallon of average tap water. In California average tap water costs about one tenth of a cent per gallon, while it bottled water costs about $0.90 per gallon -- a 560-fold difference. Expensive imported water sold in smaller bottles can cost several thousand times more than tap water: That $1.50 half-liter bottle of imported water may be costing you 10,000 times more per gallon than your tap water.

      Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype? [nrdc.org] [2010]

      The geek tends to build his defenses around extravagant and implausible conceits and ignores the mundane.

      The jury won't much care where the killer purchased his custom tailored suits, rare and pricey vintage wines, liquors and Cuban cigars. They will care if the defendant shares the same expensive tas

  • by ackthpt (218170) on Wednesday October 17, 2012 @11:52PM (#41689455) Homepage Journal

    Well, we'll just see about that! Watson, the laser tweezers!

  • ...to not drink the local tap.

  • Wel water from Fukushima on Ebay helps area recover!

  • Most successful criminal mastermind EVER.

  • ...that you're showering?

    Or does the water get into your hair only after you drink actual water? (Because if so, you could really confuse the investigators by drinking nothing by bottled beverages.) Then they'd end up guessing that you came from wherever the bottling plant was located!

  • The ex-Presidents are surfers!
  • by Black Parrot (19622) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:23AM (#41689813)

    50 posts, and still no oblig.xkcd [xkcd.com]?

  • This is new? Back in 1991, they used this technique to figure out what breaks the Ex-Presidents surf.
  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:53AM (#41689925) Homepage Journal
    Considering the rate I'm losing my hair, all they have to do is follow the trail to figure out where I've been
  • I'm completely bald, you insensitive hairy clod!
  • Next up in the news: TSA taking a lock of hair from random airline passengers...

  • by maxwells_deamon (221474) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @02:59AM (#41690171) Homepage

    Having lived in very dry places. (It frequently gets below 5% humidity in the summer outdoors) I know that with low humidity you can dry out fairly quickly. In Phoenix you are allowed to carry water into most sporting events because you need to replace the water that evaporates and everyone does it in the summer.

    When you are in someplace that is humid, you do not dry out as quickly because the water is being replaced by water in the air (yet I know there are other factors),

    It would be interesting to strictly control the isotope content in diet/drink for a month but in two different regions and then do a comparison.

    • In Phoenix you are allowed to carry water into most sporting events because you need to replace the water that evaporates and everyone does it in the summer.

      I'm amazed that it's even worth mentioning that you are allowed to carry water into sporting events. Isn't the right to carry water just assumed?

  • I've been down the drain a lot.
  • This is essentially what Sherlock Holmes did, right? Massive knowledge of soil, mud, water, tobacco, etc -- allowing him to determine where a person has been merely from a hint of dirt on the cuff of their trousers? Or pallywags or whatever it is they call pants across the pond.

  • In the mane, the article is quite good, but it does rather brush over some of the finer details.

    I'm here all week ;-)

  • Why... I'm a hairy guy.
  • "As they were leaving. The hair tested positive for selenium and titanium. The beaches are always being closed due to waste spills and stuff. If we check it out and find a match for the hair, then we'd know which break the Ex-Presidents surf!"

    "Angelo, are you buying this?"

    "I am Johnny Utah!"

  • I don't know why they just don't show CSI episodes in forensics schools. Of course I am also surprised anybody is still caught for murder these days with all the crime investigation shows showing you what not to do.

  • I'm not supposed to commit crimes?

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