Emergency Toxics Lab Just in Time for Gulf Disaster

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Analytical chemist Vincent Paez, an official with analytical chemistry giant Thermo Fisher Scientific, set up the new Food Safety Response Center in Dreieich, Germany, this year after feeling that his company had previously reacted "too slowly" to contaminations or emergency events in which chemists were needed. Thermo builds large machines like gas chromatographs and the chemicals one uses with them, and Paez envisioned that the new five-person facility, which opened on 15 April, would respond rapidly with new methods for preparing and testing samples.

Five days later, the BP Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, and food safety labs along the Gulf Coast began to panic. "It was a huge coincidence," he says. "We were planning to do a simulated emergency to try out our procedures." But then the spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and the Thermo team has swung into action to set up new procedures for rapidly measuring for contaminants in seafood or water samples.

Gulf food-safety chemists will soon be inundated with samples as the fishing industry and state officials scramble to analyze seafood catches as safe across the gulf. Most of the machines used in the region are fairly old, says Paez, running typical samples to determine levels of hydrocarbon contaminants in roughly 40 minutes. He says new machines, with methods the Thermo team is racing to finalize, could do it in 10 minutes, he estimates.

The newer methods could also find more information, he says. Most seafood safety chemists look for the most important toxicants in oil, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Paez's team is developing a single test that will reveal if the oil constituents found in samples match the chemical profile of the Deepwater crude, which Paez recently flew to Louisiana to collect.

Dispersant could be another challenge for food safety, and toward that end, Paez's chemists are hoping to offer analytical methods to spot it in seafood. "We're in new territory dumping so much of this dispersant in one place," he says.

*The title of this article has been amended from "Emergency Toxicity Lab Just in Time for Gulf Disaster" to "Emergency Toxics Lab Just in Time for Gulf Disaster" to more closely reflect the work of the lab.

Posted in Climate gulf oil spill, fisheries