[ASC-media] Media release: 'magic wand' detects toxic risks

JCA Media jca.media at starclass.com.au
Wed Aug 23 00:51:45 CEST 2006

CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment

Media Release 06/06

August 23, 2006


Australian scientists are developing a "magic wand" to find out how dangerous is the contamination lurking in the soils and groundwater beneath our cities.

Researchers in CRC CARE (the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment) are developing special sensors to analyse the toxic stew of chemicals under old industrial sites - so they can be safely treated and the land made safe for future use.

"We're developing sensors that will give us a much better idea of the pollution present over time," explains Associate Professor Jack Ng of CRC CARE and the University of Queensland.

"These sensors reveal the concentration of the contaminants and their potential effect on humans, plants and animals. They will enable us to search for specific contaminants that are of concern or to diagnose mixtures of pollutants."

In some case the "sensors" will consist of special microbes tuned to light up if they encounter particular contaminants, or show toxic stress by changing shape, altering their coats or even dying. 

"We've already developed bugs that light up when they come in contact with a certain contaminant.  You can do it by inserting a lux (light-generating) gene into the microbe or by using a fluorescent probe," Professor Ng explains.

One of the approaches the team is working on is to put the sensors on a rod - referred to as a "magic wand" - which can be stuck in the soil or water and provide an on-the-spot readout on the presence of toxic contaminants. This will dramatically reduce the time needed to send samples to a laboratory for analysis.

The managing director of CRC CARE, Professor Ravi Naidu, explains that risk assessment is the critical first step in making society safe from the contamination caused by past decades of industrial development. 

"In order to treat these sites effectively and economically, we need to know exactly what's down there," he says. "The tools being developed by CRC CARE's Risk Assessment Programme will help us to do just that."

Prof. Ng says the new sensors will be quick, low cost and easy to use.  In many cases they will provide an answer in the field - a huge help to site developers who suddenly discover they have a contamination problem to deal with.

His team is also working on a way to predict the impact on the Australian population of exposure to particular toxic substances.

"We are seeking to establish what is 'normal' in people in terms of their response to particular substances, so that we can say with confidence whether or not they are being poisoned by exposure to something that may be in the environment, whether it is natural of man-made.

"We believe this will be a significant reassurance to many people who worry about whether their health is being affected by exposure to contamination, by providing a confident answer whether or not that substance may be to blame."

Another project is investigating how oil spills move underground in water, and how they can re-enter the atmosphere as potentially-toxic vapours. This will help Australia to refine its health and environmental impact standards, Prof. Ng says. 

"Knowing what you're dealing with and whether or not it poses a risk to living creatures and people is half the battle when dealing with contamination," he adds. "Sometimes it will simply tell you that you don't have a problem.  At others it will give you a much clearer idea of how to fix it."

The CRC CARE technology can potentially add billions of dollars to the Australian economy by helping to transform "problem" contaminated sites in inner-city locations into real estate safe for residential or business development, Prof. Naidu adds.

"It will help put Australia in the world lead in dealing with a problem which every society on earth is facing.  There are an estimated 3 million contaminated sites in Asia alone, are we're getting calls all the time asking us to help clean them up," he says.

More information:
Associate Professor Jack Ng, CRC CARE and University of Queensland, 07 3274 9020  or 0414 747 147    
Email: j.ng at .uq.edu.au
Professor Ravi Naidu, CRC CARE, 08 8302 5041 
Kim Sinclair, CRC CARE communication, ph 08 8302 3933 or 0416 095 324
Kim.sinclair at crccare.com
Jan King, UQ Communications Manager, 07 3365 1120



CRC CARE is an Australian partnership of scientific, industry and government organisations set up to devise new ways of dealing with and preventing contamination of soil, water and air. 

Its goals include:
* Cleaner, safer food supplies, water  and living conditions leading to a reduced toll of disease due to toxic contamination of our food, water, air and living conditions
* Benefits of up to $1.8 billion per year from direct savings in remediation and improved values or remediated land
* A cleaner natural environment for Australia and its neighbours.

CRC CARE is part of the Australian Government's Cooperative Research Centres Program.

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