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Toenails used to assess arsenic risk

Press Release Number: 
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

31 July 2007 - University of Ballarat PhD student Dora Pearce and her colleagues are analysing toenails – with the help of synchrotron light.

The research is part of a larger environmental health project with the Australian Synchrotron 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 exactly 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 $200 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.