SOCORRO, N.M., December 21, 2000 -- In the course of field work conducted for his geochemistry dissertation, New Mexico Tech doctoral candidate Greg Miller has developed a low-cost, easy-to-use analytical kit which may soon provide researchers and technicians with a better method of differentiating the various species of arsenic detected in groundwater and other sources of drinking water.
Miller will submit his arsenic speciation test kit to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for testing, approval, and certification as a front-end analytical device. He expects to hear by early next year whether or not EPA will officially approve and validate the new kit, along with its associated method of arsenic analysis.
The patented method of using the portable arsenic test kit--which is about the size of a shoe box--was developed in the course of field research conducted by Miller, who used mathematical equations and computer programs to "model" the movement of various forms of arsenic in the environment.
Miller found it impractical to take expensive analytical equipment out into the field to measure low levels of arsenic, and, at the same time, found it confounding that certain arsenic compounds rapidly change into other forms of arsenic, sometimes before they can be sent to a commercial laboratory for analysis.
With a prototype of his newly developed kit, Miller can now determine on site if the specimens he is collecting contain organic forms of arsenic or the more toxic inorganic forms.
In addition, the invention allows for rapid differentiation in the field between arsenic (III), or "arsenite," and arsenic (V), or "arsenate."
"Arsenic (III) is widely acknowledged as being the most nefarious form of arsenic, as far as having deleterious health effects on humans," Miller points out.
Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment and is actually the twentieth most common element in the Earth's crust and the twelfth most common element found in the human body.
However, scientific evidence has long linked long-term exposure to high arsenic levels with an increase in occurrences of cancer.
Just recently, the EPA, after years of various recommendations from scientific and medical panels, began to reconsider lowering the national standards for allowable arsenic levels in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 5 parts per billion, perhaps as early as sometime next summer.
"If EPA decides it's important to also consider what specific forms of arsenic are present in our drinking water as part of its revised regulations, then it becomes very important to have an inexpensive, portable kit available which will test for different arsenic species," Miller maintains, "although health researchers consider it important, I must admit that speciation of arsenic has not been a major concern for EPA in the past."
Miller estimates that at the outset of EPA's establishing new standards for arsenic levels in groundwater, demand for his test kit may range anywhere from 1,000 kits per year to over 10,000 units sold each year, largely depending on which course the new regulations take and, even more so, on whether the agency gives its official stamp of approval to the new testing method.