Editorial Feature

How Can We Detect Chemical Manufacturing Contamination?

Cancer, animal mortality, and environmental damage are just some of the harmful effects of chemical contamination. Here, we look at the role that biosensors play in the rapid detection of these contaminants.

Image Credit: SeventyFour/Shutterstock.com

What Contamination Does Chemical Manufacturing Cause, and Why Do We Need to Detect It?

The chemical manufacturing industry releases large amounts of contaminants into the environment each year; measuring and monitoring this contamination can help us to protect those most vulnerable and, ultimately, reduce this contamination to safe levels.

Chemical manufacturing is one of the world’s largest industries, consuming more than 10% of the world’s fossil fuels and emitting 3.3 gigaton of greenhouse gases each year. It detrimentally impacts the environment in numerous ways, including adding to air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil contamination. As a result, chemical manufacturing poses a significant threat to global ecosystems, animal life, and human health.

There have been many high-profile stories in recent years that have highlighted the dangers of chemical contamination. For example, in 2019, the story of LaPlace and Reserve, two towns in Louisiana with exceptionally high incidences of cancer, made headlines worldwide. The air of these two towns was contaminated with around 50 toxic chemicals, including carcinogens such as benzene, formaldehyde, and chloroprene. Exposure to chloroprene has been linked to the 50 times increased risk of cancer that residents in the two towns face, and the Pontchartrain Works facility chemical plant has been identified as a cause of this contamination.

In 2020, scientists discovered that levels of harmful chemicals causing health issues and mass mortality in animals had tripled or more from 2010 to 2015. Of the dolphins sampled in the study, 68% were found to have chemical levels high enough to impact their health and long-term survival.

There is a clear need to monitor contamination caused by chemical manufacturing. We need to measure this type of contamination to demonstrate the extent to which chemicals can harm the planet and those living on it. Measurement techniques allow us to identify areas where humans and nature may be at an increased risk of disease and destruction, enabling us to take action to protect vulnerable populations and ecosystems.

Biosensors have emerged as an important tool in rapidly detecting contaminants from chemical manufacturing. They overcome many limitations of traditional detection methods and allow for advanced capabilities such as real-time sensing via connection with the Internet of Things (IoT). Here, we discuss how they are being used to detect different types of chemical contamination.

Biosensors for Detecting Air Pollution

Biosensors are devices that convert a biological signal into an electrical, optical, or thermal signal that can be detected and analyzed. These sensors can detect and quantify a target analyte from complex samples, including air, water, and solid samples (e.g. soil). In general, they provide high sensitivity, detecting even the smallest concentrations of a target analyte.

To detect chemical contamination in the air, the Quartz Crystal Microbalance (QCM) is often used. This technique measures alterations in resonate frequency produced by the quartz crystal sensor when covered with a film or liquid. The quartz crystal is placed between two metal electrodes that are functionalized to enhance the frequency change detection. QCM sensors are highly sensitive and can detect even ultrasmall masses.

Compared with alternative sensing devices, the QCM is well-established, low-cost, and can detect chemicals even in small concentrations. Other biosensors developed to detect air pollutants are generally of poor efficiency. There is a need for more sensitive and accessible biosensors, such as QCM, to detect contaminants in the air.

Biosensors for Detecting Water Pollution

Recent research has developed enzyme-based nanosensors to monitor levels of pollutants in water. These biosensors can detect ultralow levels of compounds in water, making them highly sensitive to low level contamination, which is harder to detect but poses a significant threat to human health. Nanomaterials are an attractive option for developing biosensors for large-scale water quality analysis due to their high stability and amplification capacity properties.

In addition to enzyme-based nanosensors, scientists have recently developed a cell-free in vitro transcription platform that uses RNA Output Sensors Activated by Ligand Induction (ROSALIND) to uncover contaminants in water. In this platform, highly processive RNA polymerases are combined with allosteric protein transcription factors and synthetic DNA transcription templates to regulate the synthesis of fluorescence-activating RNA aptamer. The transcription of the aptamer is triggered when exposed to a contaminant, which produces a fluorescent signal that can be detected and analyzed.

The Future of Biosensors in Contaminant Analysis

Some useful biosensors have been developed in recent years, capable of monitoring contaminants from chemical manufacturing. There is the potential to develop these systems further to increase their sensitivity and leverage advancements in related technologies. Currently, many biosensors can be adapted so that they can collect continuous data to allow for continuous and even real-time monitoring. In the future, we will likely see the integration of these systems into the IoT to make data collection and analysis streamlined and automated.

Continue reading: Can E.coli Be Used to Detect Heavy Metals in Water?

References and Further Reading

Alanazi, N., Almutairi, M. and Alodhayb, A.N. (2023) A review of Quartz Crystal Microbalance for chemical and Biological Sensing Applications. Sensing and Imaging, 24(1). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11220-023-00413-w.

Gavrilaș, S. et al. (2022) Recent trends in Biosensors for Environmental Quality Monitoring. Sensors, 22(4), p. 1513. https://doi.org/10.3390/s22041513.

Graham Readfearn (2020). DDT and other banned chemicals pose threat to vulnerable dolphins on Great Barrier Reef [Online]. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/30/ddt-and-other-banned-chemicals-pose-threat-to-vulnerable-dolphins-on-great-barrier-reef 

Jamiles Lartey and Oliver Laughland (2019). Cancer and chemicals in Reserve, Louisiana: the science explained [Online]. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/06/cancertown-chemicals-reserve-louisiana-science

Jung, J.K. et al. (2020) Cell-free biosensors for rapid detection of water contaminants. Nature Biotechnology, 38(12), pp. 1451–1459.  https://doi.org/10.1038/s41587-020-0571-7.

XiaoZhi Lim (2021). How the chemicals industrys pollution slipped under the radar [Online]. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/22/chemicals-industry-pollution-emissions-climate 

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Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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