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FDA taps UC Davis lab to test Gulf seafood for oil spill contamination

July 15, 2010

Robert Poppenga, veterinary toxicologist

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A diagnostic laboratory at the University of California, Davis, is gearing up to test seafood from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill area for petroleum-based chemicals, including some that have the potential to cause cancer in people.

The California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory at UC Davis is one of eight state and federal laboratories nationwide — and the only one in California — chosen by the federal government to monitor seafood from the Gulf of Mexico for toxins related to the oil spill. Seafood from the oil spill area is expected to begin arriving at the UC Davis lab for testing by early August.

“We will be looking at a variety of different seafood, including finfish, crabs, oysters and shrimp, from the impacted areas of the Gulf of Mexico,” said Robert Poppenga, a UC Davis veterinary toxicologist who is coordinating the UC Davis lab’s seafood analysis team.

The federal surveillance program will rely on two levels of testing. First, a panel of experts at an initial lab will administer sensory tests, checking for the telltale odors of petroleum contamination. If contaminants are suspected following these tests, the samples will then be sent on for more sensitive chemical diagnostic tests at UC Davis and other participating laboratories.

The other participating labs are located in Colorado, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, Arizona, Wisconsin and Florida.

In preparation for the seafood-testing program, UC Davis has received equipment valued at roughly $140,000 from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to complement its existing diagnostic equipment. The FDA is coordinating the testing program in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Petroleum crude oil is a very complex mixture of chemicals, and some of the chemicals within that mixture are potential cancer-causing agents,” Poppenga said. “So we’re going to focus on those that are of primary concern to human health.”

Of interest to the UC Davis surveillance team is a group of chemicals known as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) such as benzene, naphthalene, fluorine, anthracene, pyrene, benzo(a)pyrene and others.

Poppenga noted that the UC Davis lab is currently doing test runs to validate its analytical methods and establish baseline levels for some petroleum compounds that are commonly found at very low levels in most indoor environments.

“The method used to detect these chemicals is very complex and sensitive because we are examining for contamination down to the parts-per-billion level,” he said, noting that it would probably take four to five days to process each seafood sample.

All data from the tests will be reported back to the FDA. The results will be used to determine which areas of the Gulf of Mexico have oil-contaminated seafood and which areas can be reopened to commercial fishing.

The California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory, operated by UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine for the State of California, routinely performs diagnostic tests to identify livestock and poultry diseases. It was selected to participate in the seafood diagnostic program because it is part of the Food Emergency Response Network, a group of local, state and federal laboratories that are equipped to test for food contamination.

About UC Davis

For more than 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has 32,000 students, an annual research budget that exceeds $600 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools — Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

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