Lab Focuses on Detecting, Treating Pharmaceuticals

The University of Colorado's Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering in Boulder has opened the Center for Environmental Mass Spectrometry (CEMS), a laboratory focusing on the detection of pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic contaminants in water and evaluating the effectiveness of methods for removing these compounds.

Agilent Technologies Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., is providing the core liquid chromatograph/mass spectrometer (LC/MS) instrumentation for the lab.

CEMS was established by Imma Ferrer, research Ph.D.; Karl Linden, Ph.D.; and E. Michael Thurman, research Ph.D. Thurman, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Geological Survey in water testing, also spent five years in Spain, where Ferrer and he worked at the first LC/MS accurate mass facility in Spain for the analysis of pesticides in food. Ferrer is the chief analyst of CEMS and is responsible for the highest quality accuracy measurements and operation of the laboratory. Professor Linden directs research on the treatment of pharmaceuticals in water and plays a key role in laboratory development and design. Furthermore, CEMS has a collaborative agreement with Larry Barber, Ph.D., of the USGS for the sampling and analysis of pharmaceuticals in the environment.

"Pharmaceuticals are biologically active compounds designed specifically to affect the human body," said Thurman. "Low concentrations of parts-per-billion or parts-per-trillion generally aren't considered dangerous over the short term, but no one knows about the long-term human and ecological effects. There are also troubling effects on wildlife, such as male fathead minnows that are becoming 'feminized' from traces of the human birth-control compound EE2 in streams at concentrations of parts-per-trillion. This is noteworthy on a number of levels."

"Agilent is proud to support this innovative lab because few things are as fundamental to quality of life as clean drinking water," said Mike McMullen, vice president and general manager, Agilent Chemical Analysis Solutions Unit. "Over the years, global markets have demanded greater and greater analytical power in the quest for a cleaner environment with safer food, water and air. This is an excellent example of how our technology is being used for the greater good."

Barber and Thurman, co-authors of a 2002 USGS white paper titled "Water-Quality Data for Pharmaceuticals, Hormones, and Other Organic Wastewater Contaminants in U.S. Streams, 1999-2000." have worked closely together on this topic and will continue their collaboration through CEMS.

"Traditionally, the topics that scientists were working on didn't enter the public consciousness for about 10 years," Thurman observed. "Now, people are much more educated and sensitive about health and environmental matters, because they recognize how factors like pollution, diet and lifestyle affect them personally."

The LC/MS instrument is sensitive down to the attomole (one quintillionth, or 10 to the negative 18 power of a mole) range and offers better than two parts-per-million mass accuracy, which gives scientists high confidence in their data and helps them easily identify the compounds they find.

"Basic water-treatment technology, both for wastewater and for drinking water, has changed in recent years, now including treatment by ozone, UV, and carbon," Linden observes as the lead scientist on water treatment at CEMS. "We're looking at the problem from a number of angles. First, to help define this growing problem and to underscore the need for more testing and treatment at the municipal level. We also intend to work with people around the world to help find solutions such as evaluating various water-treatment options."

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