August 1, 2006 Physical chemists have created a new, cheap test to detect mercury, an element known to harm the brain, kidneys, heart, lungs and immune system. A gold nanorod absorbs mercury from a sample and, then and an optical spectrometer measures changes in the nanorod's light absorption. The process, which takes less than 10 minutes, can test mercury concentrations in liquids, gases, or solids.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Mercury ... It's in the ground, in the air, and in our water! We even have a little bit in our bodies. That's normal. But too much mercury could cause health problems. What's in your water? New tests may help detect if something dangerous is coming out of your faucet.
Courtney Hylton and her 2-year-old daughter Jordan enjoy their afternoon tea parties. Even though it tastes just right, what's in the water could hurt them both.
"I really want to know what's in there that shouldn't be there," Courtney says.
According to chemist Andres Campiglia, mercury attacks the nervous system. Too much mercury in your body can cause injury to your brain, kidneys, heart, lungs and immune system.
For pregnant women like Courtney, too much mercury can be toxic to their unborn babies. That's why she is having her water tested.
University of Central Florida chemists Eloy Hernández and Campiglia have created a new quick, cheap test to detect mercury by using a very unlikely source -- pure gold. Water is mixed with a solution containing gold nanorods, or solid gold bars 2,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Gold absorbs mercury. Then, scientists use an optical spectrometer to measure the light soaked up by the nanorods and reveal how much mercury is present.
"The more reddish it becomes, the higher the concentration of mercury," Hernández tells DBIS.
The entire process takes less than 10 minutes. Results read out on a computer.
Courtney and Jordan's water was safe, so for them it's another cup of tea -- with a little milk -- and no mercury.
This mercury test works on not only liquids, but also on gases and solids. Scientists believe it can also be used in a larger capacity to clean up water and power plants. It could be available to the public within a few years.
BACKGROUND: Chemists are using an unusual technique to detect mercury in your water: gold nanorods, two thousand times thinner than a human hair The gold absorbs the mercury while the researchers monitor changes in the amount of light through a hand-held device called an optical spectrometer. This process can be used to create water filters and reclaim contaminated water.
HOW MERCURY GETS INTO WATER: Mercury is found in many rocks including coal, which when burned, releases mercury into the environment. Coal-burning power plants are the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions to the air in the United States, accounting for over 40 percent of all domestic human-caused mercury emissions. The EPA has estimated that about one quarter of U.S. emissions from coal-burning power plants are deposited within the U.S. Burning hazardous wastes, producing chlorine, breaking mercury products, and spilling mercury, as well as the improper treatment and disposal of products or wastes containing mercury, can also release it into the environment. Current estimates are that less than half of all mercury within the U.S. comes from U.S. sources. Mercury in the air eventually settles into water or onto land where it can be washed into water.
TOXIC MERCURY: Also known as "quicksilver," mercury is heavy, silver-like metal, and one of five elements that are liquid at or near room temperature. Mercury is a neurotoxin, so it affects the central nervous system, causing personality changes, nervousness, trembling and in extreme cases, dementia. If mercury vapor is inhaled, as much as 80 percent of it may enter the bloodstream.