Researchers at Mississippi State University State Chemical Lab have developed new method for testing Gulf of Mexico seafood for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the main oil contaminants that affect seafood.

The lab is working on a package to send to the Food and Drug Administration for approval of the new test, and expects to have it ready by the end of July.  Findings will also be submitted to a peer-reviewed publication.

oil-testing-featured.jpgThe new test requires the use of a mass spectrometer to analyze food samples, and the lab got a big boost recently with the donation of a new high-end mass spectrometer from Agilent Technologies, Inc.  The new equipment was installed at the Hand Chemical Laboratory the first week of July and is currently in use, testing seafood samples for the hydrocarbons.

“Repetition and precision in the testing process are essential,” said associate professor Kang Xia, who also serves as director for the Research Division and the Industrial and Agricultural Services Division of the Mississippi State Chemical Lab.  “The lab’s current instrument isn’t reliable.  It is over 10 years old and has suffered numerous mechanical and software failures due to its advanced age and heavy use. The new instrument will prevent this from happening.”

Although a new mass spectrometer costs about $230,000, Agilent has given the lab the option to purchase the equipment for at a reduced price after one year of usage, however the lab is expecting to see budget cuts beyond what it has already experienced and has yet to receive payment for 50 tests it has already run with the new machine.    

The cost per test is approximately $450 for the normal 60-day turnaround time, but, “We have been testing samples as soon as they are received because of the urgency, and that costs four times as much,” Xia explained. “That’s $90,000 so far, with no end in sight.”

While the lab continues to seek external funding, oil continues to spill and samples being collected need to be tested.  “In the short term, this test is about food safety, but we will be looking longer term at the ecological exposure of [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] and dispersants in the Gulf.”

The university’s top administrator for research echoed Xia’s commitment to the Gulf’s recovery.

“Mississippi State’s research, service and outreach are making a difference now, and we will continue to provide long-term leadership as the region recovers from the environmental and economic effects of the oil spill,” said David Shaw, the land-grant institution’s vice president for research and economic development.

In June, BP gave a $10 million grant to the Mississippi State-led Northern Gulf Institute to meet immediate research needs related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. That initial funding is part of some $500 million that the company has pledged to short- and long-term research in the Gulf of Mexico and communities affected by the spill.

Pictured:  Service engineer Steve Hite (l) and gas chromatography special solutions engineer Mario Morales of Agilent Technologies, Inc., install a high-end mass spectrometer at the Mississippi State Chemical Lab in the Hand Chemical Lab building on the Mississippi State campus. The Delaware-based company donated the use of the high-tech instrument for one year, where it will be used to test Gulf seafood for evidence of oil contamination.  Photo by: Jim LairdMississippi State University.