[ASC-media] Children's toenails in goldfields show contamination

Niall Byrne niall at scienceinpublic.com.au
Tue Jul 31 03:38:18 CEST 2007


TOENAILS USED TO ASSESS ARSENIC RISK
Tuesday 31 July 2007
University of Ballarat PhD student Dora Pearce and her colleagues are
analysing toenail clippings-with the help of synchrotron light. 
 
The research is part of a larger environmental health project on the
impact of trace elements in local environments on the people living
there. 
 
Dora Pearce has been examining toenail clippings from school children in
the goldfields area of Victoria for arsenic, a natural accompaniment of
gold ores which occurs in the mining spoil or mullock heaps.
 
"Using synchrotron techniques such as x-ray fluorescence and x-ray
absorption spectroscopy, you can look at the molecular level, and not
only see where trace elements are, but what chemical form they are
in-and that is the clue to potential health effects, good or bad."
 
The same techniques can be used to determine where trace elements occur
in the environment. 
 
"We are involving children because they are the ones who tend to get
down and dirty with the environment," Dora Pearce said. 
 
"We're not saying there is a danger, rather we are developing ways of
monitoring so we can assess risk in the future."
 
Until now, the researchers have had to travel to the Advanced Photon
Source near Chicago, but they are looking forward to being amongst the
early users of the $220 million Australian Synchrotron, to be launched
officially today at 10.30 am.
 
"It will be so much easier," Dora Pearce said. 
 
"Taking biological samples overseas on an aeroplane to America is so
much of a hassle. Not only do you have to have additional ethical
clearance to run the experiment in the US, but there are also serious
bio-security issues. I'm looking forward to driving my toenail clippings
down the road to Clayton."
 
The methods developed by the researchers could also be of use in areas
where there are serious problems with trace elements, such as in
Bangladesh, Pearce's supervisor, Dr Kim Dowling, said. 
 
"Aid agencies there drilled millions of tube wells into underground
water sources during the 1970s and 1980s, only to find later that the
water was contaminated with arsenic," Dr Dowling said.
 
"The goldfields project should help to ensure such a tragedy is not
repeated in Australia."
 
Professor Andrea Gerson, an expert in mineral processing at the
University of South Australia who uses synchrotrons extensively, has
acted as an adviser and mentor to the project. 
 
Her participation illustrates what she believes is one of the most
significant advantages of having an Australian Synchrotron. 
 
"It raises the level of expertise in synchrotron science, because it
raises the level of communication," Professor Gerson said.
 
"From my point of view in South Australia, it's within easy calling and
talking distance to discuss my experiments and data. And even for
someone in Perth, it's within relatively easy visiting distance.
 
"The Australian Synchrotron opens today in Melbourne: a $200 million
national scientific instrument delivered on budget, and on time."
 
Pearce, Dowling and Gerson are some of hundreds of scientists who will
use the synchrotron over the next year. 
 
For further information, contact Dora Pearce on  (03) 5327 9264 or at
dpearce at students.ballarat.edu.au
<mailto:dpearce at students.ballarat.edu.au> 
 
Images available.
______________


Media contacts 

*         Australian Synchrotron, Stefanie Pearce,  +61 (03) 9655 6676,
stefanie.pearce at iird.vic.gov.au

*         Science in Public: Niall Byrne, +61 (417) 131 977,
niall at scienceinpublic.com.au 

 
 
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