Tracking Toxic Traces

Dan Brimberry '13
Dan Brimberry '13
Over the past few years, people have become aware of a health threat in an unexpected place: traces of bisphenol-A (or BPA) that leach from reusable plastic water bottles. Because of his interest in endocrinology and toxicology, Dan Brimberry ’13 has decided to further pursue this subject with funding from an Emerson grant and guidance from Timothy Elgren, professor of chemistry.

BPA has long known to be harmful to human health. Small doses of the chemical were thought to be harmless, but recent studies have caused the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be concerned about: “the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.” When BPA was found to leach from the lining of plasticware like the lining of bottles and cans, the FDA acknowledged that more extensive regulation was needed.

But Brimberry has recognized a larger problem in the BPA scare. “The greater issue is the trace contamination of a multitude of compounds that affect the environment and the organisms living in it,” he said. And although scientists can quickly detect if a particular compound has leached into a mixture, finding the concentrations of the leached chemical—essential in assessing the level of toxicity—is not a very easy process. For his project, Brimberry is trying to develop an analytical procedure to quantify the levels of leached BPA.

Brimberry is optimizing the parameters of a gas chromatograph, which is used to separate and analyze the different compounds in a mixture, and a mass spectrometer, which is used to determine the composition of different elements in a mixture. He is using simulated complex matrices, such as urine and insect hemolymph (or circulatory fluid in some arthropods) to put into the chromatograph and the mass spectrometer. By using both of these instruments together, Brimberry can determine the smallest concentration of BPA that can be detected. To Brimberry, this means that less time would have to be spent in the tedious process of preparing samples for analysis. “I believe that with lower limits of detection on the instrumentation, less time will be required for sample preparation from the environment, which yields a faster analytical procedure,” he said. Brimberry’s final goal is to have a higher sample throughput, or be able to run more samples in less time.

For Brimberry, the integration of many of his interests makes this project ideal for his current scientific pursuits and those he hopes for in the future; “The most exciting part of this research for me is that it ties together several areas that are of interest to me, namely endocrinology, analytical chemistry, and how science mingles with both regulatory bodies and the public at large,” Brimberry said. He hopes to attend to medical school upon graduation from Hamilton and specialize in endocrinology, and he sees this project as a stepping stone for future projects in his intended field.

Brimberry is a graduate of Loyola High School in Los Angeles.

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