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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/Portable Toxic Testing

Air Date: Week of

Heavy metals can’t hide from a new pocket-tester, designed to measure levels of dangerous metals with just a prick of a finger or a drop of saliva. Living on Earth’s Margaret Rossano reports.


[MUSIC: Tom Lehrer “The Elements”]

ROSSANO: Tom Lehrer may have sung about them in a satirical song, but toxic heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury are no laughing matter.


Studies have found that children with elevated levels of lead in their blood may experience reduced IQ and other learning disabilities. Cadmium is known to be carcinogenic, while mercury can damage the central nervous system. Unfortunately, testing people for exposure to toxic materials is labor intensive, time consuming and can be expensive. Now, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has invented a portable system that may remedy these obstacles.

The usual way to measure levels of toxic materials in individuals is to take fluid samples and send them for analysis at a laboratory. Pacific Northwest Lab’s new device can detect levels of toxic metals from blood, saliva and urine, and – unlike a mass spectrometer in a laboratory – provides results within minutes. Fluid samples from individuals can be as small as a drop of blood from a finger prick.

The new portable machine is also as accurate as the larger machines, and will cost about 10 times less. The lab is currently seeking industrial partners to mass-produce and sell the devices. Once on the market, the new detection system will have a wide range of applications, from clinical diagnosis at hospitals, to industrial monitoring for worker exposure to toxic metals at manufacturing plants, to environmental monitoring for toxic metals in local water supplies. Faster, cheaper analysis may help in developing new strategies to reduce exposure and risks.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Margaret Rossano.



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