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Shipping Disposable Lighters as Forensic Evidence by Miller (Forensic Science Communications, October 1999)

Shipping Disposable Lighters as Forensic Evidence by Miller (Forensic Science Communications, October 1999)

October 1999 - Volume 1 - Number 3


Shipping Disposable Lighters as Forensic Evidence

Michael E. Miller
Industrial Hygiene and Safety Manager
Logistical Support Unit
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington, DC

Law enforcement personnel package and ship forensic evidence. Although these tasks may be routine, they are not trivial. Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies must comply with federal hazardous materials transportation law, United States Code 49. This manuscript does not attempt to provide all the information needed to properly package and ship every type of forensic evidence deemed a hazardous material. This manuscript does, however, present a mechanism by which disposable lighters can be packaged and shipped when confiscated in a criminal case.

The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for protecting against the risks to life and property when hazardous materials are transported in commerce (National Governors’ Association, page 1). From a transportation perspective, a hazardous material is a substance capable of posing an unreasonable risk to health, safety, and property when transported in commerce. This is embodied in 49 CFR 172.101, Table of Hazardous Materials. The Table lists proper shipping names along with other packaging and shipping information. Although the Table may seem to list every possible hazardous material, it is not easy to categorize the contents of a package for shipment because there are pages of minute detail on what constitutes a particular hazard class.

In addition to conforming to the regulations prescribed by DOT, other federal agencies including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (National Governors’ Association, page 4) may manage different facets of the transportation process. Other transportation organizations may be more strict in their interpretation of commonly imposed regulations. For example, if a hazardous material shipment is properly classified, packaged, marked, and labeled per DOT mandates, member carriers within the International Air Transport Association (IATA) may impose additional restrictions, and each airline carrier member of IATA may impose restrictions different from another member.

In the case of lighters, DOT essentially prohibits shipping per 49 CFR 173.21(I). To properly ship disposable lighters, manufacturers must comply with 49 CFR 173.308, then withstand the scrutiny of the Bureau of Explosives for the design of the product and the inner shipping packaging in which the lighter will be placed. If all are satisfied, DOT’s Associate Administrator for Hazardous Material Safety will give the manufacturer permission to ship that product. Law enforcement agencies are not in the business of disposable butane lighter production and distribution; however, the instructions in 49 CFR 107.705 can be applied to allow for the approval of proper packaging and shipping procedures.

On March 29, 1999, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory, requested the approval from DOT to ship lighters by detailing specific packaging and shipping instructions. Based upon the acceptance of these instructions on April 8, 1999 and a revision on June 9, 1999, the Office of Hazardous Materials Exemptions and Approvals granted the FBI Laboratory approval to ship devices equipped with an ignition element and containing fuel. Specifically, this approval is for the use of the FBI and all local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies or other entities that have prior arrangements with the FBI Laboratory to ship lighters for forensic examination. The FBI Laboratory’s approval is shown below. This document details the provisions under which the approval was granted, packaging instructions, labeling and marking requirements, who to contact if there is an incident during transportation, and the limitations of the approval.

Letter from DOT
Letter from DOT

It is the responsibility of the contributing agency to ensure that compliance with all the requirements of Title 49 are met prior to utilizing this approval. The above document contains the information on the proper labeling, marking, and packaging materials required. To comply with Number Six of the approval, a copy of this approval may be used and shipment made after contacting the FBI. Packaging materials may be obtained from the FBI Laboratory’s Materials Devices Unit at (202) 324-4341.

It is imperative to realize the importance of Title 49 whenever forensic evidence is packaged and shipped in commerce, particularly if the evidence is a hazardous material. The FBI Laboratory provided a mechanism to properly package and ship a previously prohibited hazardous material. The FBI Laboratory is committed to the challenge of providing safe methods of transportation for hazardous materials in addition to preserving forensic evidence. The goal of law enforcement agencies is to protect personnel and the public, including package handlers, without losing the ability to properly examine the evidence.


National Governors’ Association, Center for Policy Research for the Office of Hazardous Materials Transportation, Research and Special Programs Administration, United States Department of Transportation. Hazardous Materials Transportation Regulatory and Enforcement Programs: A Governor’s Guide, DTRS-57-88-P-80961.