Could DIY biologists tackle problems with pollutants?

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Sandra Porter
Some of the things that are attracting people to DIY biology are:
  • the idea of doing science with others for fun
  • the possibility of doing something that might be beneficial to society
  • being part of larger movement
All of those notions appeal to me and since I've been involved with biotech for many years, I have lots of project ideas. After thinking about the yogurt and melamine detection project, I started to wonder if a DIY project could even have a bigger impact, and say, develop a cheap test for heavy metals like arsenic or lead. In Seattle, it costs between $30 and $50 to test water or soil for lead(pdf). Some parents spent that a few years ago testing the drinking water from Seattle Schools (some schools required new pipes). As a result of parent investigations, the Seattle School District had to install new pipes in some schools because the lead levels were too high. Cheaper tests might encourage more parents to test for lead themselves. Why lead? Lead poisoning is bad, it's pervasive, and it's a growing problem in the developing world. An Associated Press story on Sunday reported on lead poisoning in THIAROYE SUR MER, Senegal (1):
The mysterious illness killed 18 children in this town on the fringes of Dakar, Senegal's capital, before anyone in the outside world noticed. When they did -- when the TV news aired parents' angry pleas for an investigation, when the doctors ordered more tests, when the West sent health experts -- they did not find malaria, or polio or AIDS, or any of the diseases that kill the poor of Africa. They found lead. The dirt here is laced with lead left over from years of extracting it from old car batteries. So when the price of lead quadrupled over five years, residents started digging up the earth to get at it. The World Health Organization says the area is still severely contaminated, 10 months after a government cleanup.
In the U.S., lead contamination is taken quite seriously. Last year, millions of toys from China were recalled because they had dangerous levels of lead in the paint. (2) A new law was also passed requiring all children's items, sold in the U.S., to be tested for lead.
Figure 1. Recalled toys from China (2).
Danny Westneat, a columnist in the Seattle Times (3), described the plight of a Seattle retailer who's run into challenges with the new regulations. She started a store to sell used children's clothing and toys, that she purchased elsewhere. It's a nice idea, recycling clothing and toys. Goods can be sold more cheaply than otherwise and it takes them a little longer to reach the landfill. But she will probably have to close her shop.
That's because the stuff in her store has never been tested for lead. A law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in August, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, requires all products for kids under age 12 to be tested for lead or pulled from the shelves. Even if it was made before the law passed. Powell figures the cost of lead-testing her entire store would exceed the value of the merchandise. Single tests can run anywhere from $50 into the hundreds -- pointless if what you sell is $7.99 used denim toddler skirts or $9.98 plush toys. So Blinky Bug Lovey Blanket ($14.95), and everything else, will become hazardous waste instead. "It's not the economy that's going to destroy me, it's my own government," Powell said. The law is a well-intentioned response to last year's huge recalls of lead-tainted toys. But it's so sweeping that the CEO of educational toy maker Learning Resources has dubbed Feb. 10 as "National Bankruptcy Day." It's the toughest lead standard in the world. And it will apply to children's items made anywhere out of most anything, from cloth to wood to paper.
Imagine if flea markets everywhere have to forgo selling stuff for children and only garage sales are left. A cheap lead test could be useful for multiple groups including parents and retailers. Could DIY biologists actually could make a cheap test for lead? Are they interested in trying? I'm not sure, but I have some ideas for how this could be done. References:
  1. Heidi Vogt. January 4th, 2008. Lead for car batteries poisons an African town.
  2. WorldNet daily, June 2007. More lead-poison toys from China recalled.
  3. Danny Westneat. Sunday, Jan. 4th, 2008. Seattle Times. When rules trump ingenuity

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