Silicon Valley company devises quick fish test

June 22, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Consumers and fisherman want to know the effects of the oil spill now. That's why labs along the Gulf Coast are bombarded by people, bringing in fish samples for contamination testing. Now, those same labs are asking for help from a Silicon Valley company.

At Santa Clara-based Agilent Technologies, scientists are hard at work. They're getting calls from the FDA, NOAA, private and public health labs along the Gulf Coast. They need help measuring the extent of oil contamination to fish and shrimp.

"The technology is there at the right time so people can monitor the safety of their foods now," says Agilent chemist Stephan Baumann.

Normally, it takes about a day and half to test fish for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH. It is a carcinogen that can cause cancer. Agilent says its process can get the tests done in just four hours.

"It's quicker and faster so they can test more samples and hopefully they can test at a lower sensitivity," says Monty Benefiel from Agilent Technologies.

This is how it works. A fish sample is brought to a lab.

"This fish to be prepared normally would be put into a blender," says Benefiel.

A solvent is added to separate the proteins from pollutants. Scientists usually need enough of the contaminated sample to fill a beaker, which can take hours. Agilent's process requires only a small amount. Then that vial is put into a machine.

Agilent is charging labs $200,000 for the package, but as some 60,000 barrels of oil continue to flow into the water, consumers everywhere want answers fast.

"I ask before I buy anything, 'Is that fresh? When did you get it? Where did you get it from?'" says Tisha Bocian from San Jose.

"I read where it comes from, what the package says. If I buy at the deli, I'll ask," says Sophia Renda from Morgan Hill.

Most Bay Area markets buy their fish locally, but the longer the oil spill continues, the more Californians even question the quality of their fish.


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