Image Source: Agilent Technologies

1) Finding Environmental Toxins

Industries, governments, and regulatory bodies need efficient ways to test the purity of our water, the cleanliness of our air, the content of our soil, and the quality of our food. Mass spectrometry is one of the most reliable methods for assessing whether or not a part of the environment is being contaminated by chemicals, pharmaceuticals, naturally occurring organics such as algal toxins, or pesticides. An investigation by the Associated Press has shown that the a wide range of pharmaceutical products (including antibiotics, mood stabilizers, anti-convulsants, and sex hormones) have been found in the drinking water supplies of about 41 million Americans. As concern about the effects of chronic low-level exposure to pharmaceutical drugs heightens, mass spectrometry is increasingly used to test drinking water supplies.

Mass spectrometry is frequently combined with gas and liquid chromatography technology when testing for environmental toxins. GC/MS systems are ideal for identifying pesticides, gasoline oxygenates, and algal toxins. The newer LC/MS-MS systems are more sensitive and are capable of deeper analysis of water soluble organics such as surfactants, explosives, and pharmaceuticals.

2) Testing for Steroid Use in Athletes

The use of steroids among athletes to improve athletic performance has become quite prevalent over the years and has expanded from a Major League problem to a middle school one as well. Accordingly, athletic oversight committees from the international Olympics to local school districts test athletic competitors for steroid use by using mass spectrometry. Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) technology is especially effective in confirming the presence or absence of steroids, diuretics, and stimulants in a person’s body.

3) Fighting Terrorism and Protecting the Homeland

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have formulated a response to potential threats posed by chemical and radiologic terrorism that involves the use of mass spectrometry. The CDC uses the Rapid Toxic Screen to analyze blood and urine for over 150 chemical agents that are likely to be used by terrorists, including nerve agents such as sarin, blistering agents such as sulfur mustards, cyanide-based compounds, incapacitating agents, and many other toxic industrial chemicals. 20 mass spectrometers are used during a Rapid Toxic Screen and can give detailed individual results that reveal what agents were used and the level of exposure.

The CDC is also furthering development of mass spectrometry and gamma spectroscopy methods to measure urine for the presence of radionuclides such as radioactive forms of uranium, plutonium, and strontium that are often used in the making of “dirty bombs.” The CDC also uses advanced mass spectrometry techniques to measure levels of toxins that could be used for bio-terrorism. The Mass Spectrometry Toxin Laboratory can detect botulinum toxins, anthrax, and ricin in a given sample and is refining state-of-the-art mass spectrometry technology to “fingerprint” the toxin in a way that can help identify the source of the agent.

4) Exploring the Universe

The two primary applications of mass spectrometry in space are a) analyzing the composition of planetary atmospheres and b) monitoring air quality on manned space flights. The Cassini spacecraft contains the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS), which is used to measure the composition of ionized molecules originating from Saturn’s ionosphere and its moon Titan. Air quality and composition inside manned shuttles is closely tracked by NASA for the safety of the astronauts who are spent on space missions.

5) Drug Development and Discovery

These days, there seems to be a pill for just about any physical or mental ailment you can think of. Pharmaceutical use is at an all-time high and growing rapidly as we speak. For drugs to go through the rigorous process of discovery, development, and FDA approval, there must be an efficient and accurate way for scientists to analyze the plethora of compounds that are generated along the way in successfully bringing a medicine to market.

Drug developers and scientists rely on mass spectrometry to characterize chemical structures and identify impurities within their compounds. Pharmaceutical researchers often use mass spectrometry with liquid chromatography technology (LC/MS) to obtain quantitative data for the evaluation and submissions process necessary for FDA approval.

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