Toxicology is a branch of science that deals with the nature, effects, and detection of poisons.
Poisons are bioactive substances that cause toxic effects in living systems. Poisons can be found everywhere; at work, at home, and out in nature. Not only are they everywhere but they are complex.
In order to analyze the complexity of poisons and detect them, precise and sensitive equipment is needed. The most common instrument used to do this is a Mass Spectrometer. Mass spectrometers are used in laboratories across the globe and often for forensics and doping cases where poisons need to be detected. It is interesting to note that many of these labs will purchase used mass spectrometers to conduct their poison analysis. The reason for this is that used mass spec’s can last for a decade plus. The environment of the lab, the quality of production, and the necessary procedures while using the instruments keep them in lasting condition.
As mentioned, forensics and doping commonly use mass spec to seek out poisonous components present in a variety of substances. The type of mass spectrometer that is used most is the Liquid Chromatography-MS. This is a chemistry technique that combines the physical separation abilities of liquid chromatography with the mass analysis capabilities in Mass Spectrometry. While LC separates mixtures, MS allows for structural identity of individual components with high sensitivity.
In addition to the liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry components, an LC-MS system has an interface. This acts as a go-between for the other two otherwise incompatible components. While the mobile phase in a LC system contains a pressurized liquid, MS analyzers operate using a vacuum. So, the interface is necessary to allow function of both… and serves as a real-time example of the evolution of science; because of it, many toxins that harm humans and animals can be tested. Some of these are: plant toxins, marine toxins, mushroom toxins, venoms, and mycotoxins.
LC-MS is also the analyzer implemented to test for over 100 kinds of pesticides that are harmful to animals. In an article linked here, The Journal of Analytical Toxicology has committed analytical methods to 117 poisons commonly used in the poisoning of wildlife. In it states: “Poisoning with agricultural chemicals is a major threat for wildlife all over the world. Accidental or malicious poisoning episodes in wildlife are very common all over the world and represent a major research challenge for toxicologists and forensic laboratories 1. Poisoned animals are usually found dead by hunters, hikers or wildlife protection agents. The investigation of an incident that involves the death of wildlife specimens generally consists of a field inquiry, a postmortem examination and, when necessary, chemical analysis to determine whether a poison might be responsible 2. In addition to biological samples from wildlife specimens, any bait or recipients found at the scene are also usually sent to the laboratory for chemical identification.” Please read more about this in an article linked here.
Although LC-MS has been tried and true in the science industry, new methods are still evolving all the time, all over the world. It will be interesting to see what modern labs come up with next using this technology.