Synchrotron brings $220m support for research
RESEARCHERS have welcomed this week’s opening of the $220 million Australian synchrotron as having huge implications for the ability to conduct important environmental health research.
One example of research likely to benefit is ongoing work that has been looking at the extent and nature of arsenic contamination in young children.
The researchers have so far been using an overseas synchrotron — a type of particle accelerator that can be used for advanced scientific work— to determine the pattern of arsenic deposits in the toenail clippings of children.
While this has meant taking the samples on a flight to Chicago in the US, this week’s opening of the Australian synchrotron in Clayton, by Victorian Premier John Brumby and federal Education Minister Julie Bishop, means further work may be conducted here in Australia.
Dora Pearce, the University of Ballarat PhD student whose work on toenails has been done using the US synchrotron, said the opening of the Australian facility had ‘‘ huge implications’’ for health-related research. ‘‘ It just opens up the possibilities for environmental health research amazingly,’’ she said.
Pearce’s research has involved her looking at the clippings to determine whether arsenic found there was deposited evenly or in concentrated periods of time, and also how it was metabolised and excreted.
Professor Andrea Gerson, an expert in mineral processing at the University of South Australia, who uses synchrotrons extensively and has acted as an adviser to the project, said alternative methods of studying arsenic levels required the nail or hair to be dissolved in a solvent before the analysis.
‘‘ You lose the chemical information — you know how much arsenic is there, but you lose the chemical state it was in, what else it was bonded to,’’ Gerson said.
‘‘ That’s quite important for these materials. In some forms they are quite toxic, and in other forms they are not as toxic. It provides valuable information about the patterns of ingestion.
‘‘ What we are hoping to do in the next set of experiments, again overseas, is to check that the arsenic has come through the blood supply, and hasn’t been absorbed through the surface of the nail.’’
The issue of arsenic contamination is relevant because of the pollution problems associated with mining. Arsenic is a relatively common element often found under-