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;