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Pacific chemistry professors, student develop quick method to test homes for toxic drywall


Stockton, CA – Two chemistry professors and a graduate student from University of the Pacific have developed a quick and easy way to determine if homes contain contaminated drywall made in China.

Pacific chemistry Professors O David Sparkman and Patrick Jones, along with second-year graduate student Matthew Curtis, developed the method by using mass spectrometry in conjunction with DART ionization. They were able to determine within minutes whether a sample of drywall possessed harmful sulphur materials. The Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry published their research on its website on July 19.

Chinese drywall with these sulphur materials reportedly cause respiratory illnesses, produces a strong odour, and corrodes metal, including copper wiring and air conditioning units in homes. The drywall – which was used during the recent housing boom – has sparked lawsuits from homeowners throughout the country. This new method provides analytical proof for homeowners who question whether their drywall is toxic.

“It is always great to be able to use cutting edge technology in the pursuit of environmental safety for people who put their trust in analytical chemistry,” said Dr Sparkman. “There is no race to be the first to solve a problem, just the assurance that the correct problem is identified and solved in a timely manner, and that’s what we’ve been able to do with DART mass spectrometry.”

Their research involved using a mass spectrometer with a DART (Direct Analysis in Real Time) ion source. The DART device allows the researchers to hold the drywall sample in an open-air space while it is being ionized, or electrically charged, with a heated stream of gas. As the gas stream breaks down the sample into individual molecules, they are ionized and the mass of the ions is measured. The mass of the ions indicate whether the sample contains sulphur materials or not.

The DART device – when connected to a mass spectrometer – allows substances to be analyzed without sample preparation. This method could save homeowners valuable time and money as they face the possibility of contamination in their homes. The process of testing homes with this method could cost homeowners on average as little as $250 per sample, said Dr Sparkman.

The researchers began their study in April after being contacted by a Georgia contractor who was looking for an easy and effective way to determine if homes were made of Chinese contaminated drywall. The contractor then sent samples of the toxic drywall to Pacific’s mass spectrometry facility.

In April 2007, Drs Sparkman and Jones, along with graduate student Teresa Vail, used a mass spectrometer with a DART interface to determine the presence of melamine in pet food. The research was sparked by a massive recall of pet food contaminated with melamine.