Environmental Testing: Paving the Path Toward a Healthier Earth

We humans are an integral part of our environment—our skies, rivers, oceans, forests, and the land. We are inseparable from it. Think what we may, we are an integral part of our ecosystem, and both optimists and pessimists on current environmental trends and policy will agree on this. Yet, unlike human illness, which calls for an immediate response from a patient, it is easier for us to remain complacent about the earth’s state of health because individual impact is diffuse and often not quantifiable. Perhaps our situation is like that of a frog which, if dropped into a pot of boiling water, will instantly jump out, but if placed into the same pot of water and heated slowly, will gradually heat up and boil to its death.

While we have developed increasingly sophisticated technologies to detect and treat human health, we need to proactively apply similar technologies and a health-focused mindset toward taking care of our planet.

We need to constantly remind ourselves that it is our combined responsibility to future generations to halt and reverse the harm we have caused and continue to create. These words by Chief Seattle in 1854 perhaps say it best: “This we know…the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to earth. All things are connected, like the blood which connects one family. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life—he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

The impact of our civilization and our way of life on our environment and ourselves has become increasingly apparent, and is a cause for great concern. According to a September 29, 2009 speech by the Administrator of the U.S. EPA, Lisa P. Jackson, “A child born in America today will grow up exposed to more chemicals than a child from any other generation in our history. A 2005 study found 287 different chemicals in the cord blood of 10 newborn babies—chemicals from pesticides, fast food packaging, coal and gasoline emissions, and trash incineration. They were found in children in their most vulnerable stage. Our kids are getting steady infusions of industrial chemicals before we even give them solid food….”

The various pesticides, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals that are polluting our environment have the potential to harm future generations, as new research is providing links to serious birth defects, cancers, gene mutations, and behavioral changes that could have troubling implications for human reproduction, hormonal systems, brain development, and cognition.

In addition to pollution from toxins, we are also facing an increasing scarcity of natural resources. I recently heard from a visiting friend from Bangalore, India, that an entire residential community that was recently constructed near the city has no running water due to shortages. The residents depend on tankers to truck in water on a daily basis. Can we imagine this in America—our water faucets running completely dry? Bangalore is not alone. Many of the cities in India and China, two of the world’s fastest growing economies, are increasingly facing severe water shortages.

I started thinking about these themes in recent weeks after attending the annual meeting of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) in Denver, CO, June 5–9, 2011. At the conference, I saw how exquisitely sophisticated new technologies, many of which were created to improve biomedical research and human health, are now being applied to the environment.

For example, with increased awareness of environmental pollution, new technologies can help us better detect and understand their impact. At the ASMS conference, I observed that the application of new tools to conduct environmental testing, such as detection of toxins, has increased significantly in the last few years.

I attended two sessions focused on these topics: “Unknown Environment Contaminants: Advance Mass Spectrometry Technologies” and “Environmental Chemistry and Health.” It was evident at talks presented at these sessions that we have become increasingly aware of previously unknown contaminants that are burdening our limited supply of land, air, and water.

Other sessions at the conference highlighted recent developments in mass spectrometry that have enhanced the sensitivity and reliability of analytical methods for the detection of pesticides, heavy metals, and chemicals, such as pharmaceutical drugs, in natural resources like drinking water.

The talks at these sessions discussed the results and findings from various studies being conducted by scientists with new MS technologies. Titles included: “Determination of Bisphenol A Containing Compounds in Water Samples Taken From Different Countries at Different Stages of Economic Development;” “Pollution of Moscow Air in Winter—The GC-MS Study of Snow Samples;” and “Determination of Human-Use Pharmaceuticals in Ground- and Surface-Water Samples by Large-Volume Injection, High-Performance Liquid Chromatography/Tandem Mass Spectrometry.”

Various companies also exhibited their latest MS technologies. Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA) recently introduced the EQuan MAX system, a turnkey LC-MS solution for the analysis of pesticides, pharmaceuticals, personal-care products, endocrine disruptors, and perfluorinated compounds in environmental water, drinking water, and beverage samples.

The Agilent (Palo Alto, CA) 240 Ion Trap GC/MS provides advanced ionization and scanning techniques to enhance selectivity and detection limits. Together with the Agilent 7890A GC system, the 240 Ion Trap GC/MS can deliver improved analytical performance for environmental analysis.

The NexION® 300 ICP-MS from PerkinElmer (Shelton, CT) is a powerful tool for water safety testing and metal ion detection.

Shimadzu (Columbia, MD) introduced the GCMS-QP2010 Ultra, its most advanced gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, descended from the GCMS-QP2010.

By the end of the conference, I realized that these powerful new tools provide us with incredible opportunities to become better stewards of our earth and to more closely monitor our short-term and long-term impact on precious natural resources.

In addition to advances in scientific technologies, the rapid global growth of Internet and mobile technologies has helped create a perfect storm for implementing and propagating novel approaches to tackling and solving today’s environmental challenges. In a way, modernization has increased our interdependence, and we have the potential to harness these forces to the benefit and well-being of both humans and the earth.

Ultimately, we need to work together to develop a more sustainable earth and, as we do so, let us remember this Native American proverb I recently read, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

The authors are Consulting Editors, American Laboratory/Labcompare; e-mail: mshukla@americanlaboratory.com.