Collaborating with companies to analyse ‘novel’ trace pollutants

25 April 2019 11:58
Wearing a white lab coat and blue lab gloves, Carola looks up at a large analytical machine while loading small glass vials into it

Carola Graf is trying to find ways to identify and quantify traces of potentially damaging chemicals in the atmosphere, to help regulators make decisions about their safety. Now she’s been given valuable equipment by two companies to help her research. 

“We are talking about really low concentrations, like looking for a droplet of water in an Olympic sized swimming pool, but for these compounds it’s not even a droplet,” said Dr Andy Sweetman, Carola’s PhD supervisor at Lancaster University.

Carola, a PhD student and environmental chemistry research technician, is studying organophosphorus flame retardants - compounds used in the manufacture of furnishings to reduce the risk of them catching fire and to retard the spread of flames. A previous generation of brominated flame retardants were banned as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), chemicals which remain in the environment for many years and are dangerous in even tiny quantities to humans and wildlife. Now the replacement compounds are coming under scrutiny, to see whether they too might be causing problems. But because of commercial confidentiality and complex chemistry, scientists don’t even know exactly what chemicals the compounds are made up of.

“We know they are being used, but don’t know how much, which ones and where. What we want to do is to create an environmental profile for these chemicals,” said Andy, who runs an air monitoring network for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) from the Lancaster Environment Centre.

“In particular we are interested in whether they stay in the products they are added to: what happens if you clean your flame retardant treated curtains, for example. These compounds are known to be released during everyday product use, but we want to know where they go and in what quantities? Do they find their way into water, air, fish and animals, and into people? Do they degrade easily? Degradation products can sometimes be more toxic than the compounds themselves.”

Air monitoring is one way to provide insights into these questions. Analytical methods for the old brominated flame retardants are well established, but new methods are needed for new groups of emerging pollutants. Carola is one of a group of scientists around the world developing new analytical methods.

But she had a problem, while she had the equipment she needed to extract, purify and concentrate her air samples, she didn’t have access to the latest gas chromatography-mass spectrometry instrument required to accurately quantify the tiny amounts of these complex compounds in the samples.

While attending a conference in Italy she met Jörg Riemer, an application chemist from Agilent, a company which manufactures high specification analytical instruments for laboratories around the world, as well as providing chemical analysis services.

“I told him that I have all these great ideas but I haven’t got the instrument to research them or the money to buy one,” said Carola. “Then a few months later Jörg contacted me and told me he had a piece of kit in his lab which he no longer needed, and said: ‘You can have it, do you want it?’

“Now the instrument, a GC-MS/MS which would cost £300,000 brand new, is sitting in our lab. It was sent from Germany and Jörg came to Lancaster to install it. It’s working really well.”

For the company, there are also benefits from having scientists using their equipment to do cutting edge research.

“We write papers and we cite their equipment, or we go to conferences and talk about what we are doing, and the equipment we are using,” said Carola. “Other scientists then find out about the equipment and that it is working well.

“We are developing a method to analyse these compounds and will tell the company about it, so then they can provide the method to customers who want to analyse the same compounds - it’s an important selling point for them.”

Carola’s ability to network paid off again at another conference, when she talked to Hansjörg Majer from Restek, which makes accessories, known as consumables, for analytical instruments - including the chromatography columns that are used to separate out the chemicals.

Carola developed a research plan which was submitted to the Restek Academic Support Programme and was awarded $3,000 of consumables a year free, as well as advice on what to use and how to use them. Again the company benefits because their products are used in cutting edge research, and will be mentioned in papers and conferences: other scientists trying to replicate the experiments are likely to want to use the same equipment.

Among other applications, Carola’s results will help environmental chemists assess potential exposure concentrations and help ecotoxicologists to decide realistic doses to do their tests with. This is a critical part of trying to establish if these flame retardants do pose a risk to human health and wildlife.