Happy new year and welcome to part 4 in our series breaking down some of our favourite news stories from the past month. As always, we look at key stories from trade publications and research from academic journals that have caught our eye. This month we examine marine pollution, counterfeit caviar, and the scale of fraud in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as the role mid-IR sensors play in protecting consumers and industrial firms from these contaminants.

1) Fighting plastic pollution

Our top story for the month is one with a feel-good touch about it – the winner of the Broadcom MASTERS competition for rising stars in STEM subjects has been announced. The winner is Anna Du, a 12-year-old student from Massachusetts, who has created an underwater robot that uses infrared vision systems to identify microplastics on the ocean floor.

The problem of plastic pollution in the ocean is widely acknowledged and well documented. 150 million metric tons are in the ocean already, with 8 million more entering it each year. Indeed, the weight of plastic in the ocean is set to overtake that of fish by 2050. And plastics (especially microplastics) are already entering the food chain.

Traditional methods require specialized workers and heavy equipment; and samples analysed in a laboratory. Once in the laboratory, tests have to be run to analyse seawater quality. Infrared sensors are ideal for this task as they allow both the identification of, and differentiation between different types of plastics based on their composition (and therefore absorption spectra).

The project is complementary to that of SMS, a 2016 EU project developed to undertake in-situ, real-time monitoring for pollutants and microbiological toxins – albeit not plastic. The impact of this invention has been widely recognised – with write-ups in the Smithsonian and the World Economic Forum. Not bad for a high-school project!

Image: Broadcom MASTERS PR

2) Detection of marine pollution

Sticking with the problem of marine pollution, researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University have characterised various sensing technologies to understand their efficiency in monitoring and detecting various pollutants.

In a chapter published in December, the researchers point out that a variety of hyperspectral sensing systems are now available for ocean monitoring,  to measure a wide range of factors from temperature, conductivity and pH, to salinity, dissolved oxygen and fluorescence due to chlorophyll. Similarly to part 1, the most common approach is to use the conventional method of collecting in-situ water samples for analysis in the  laboratory. “Such methods are accurate but time-consuming and geographically constrained and require trained professionals and laboratory analysis.”

According to the researchers, remote sensing technologies – aerial and satellite hyperspectral imaging – now represent an effective tool to detect and map pollutant spills, and provide useful input data for oil spill models, to track pollutants through space and time. Notably these provide “near real-time measurements that can be effectively used to detect, map, and track many pollutants such as oil and chemical spills, algal blooms, and high suspended solid concentrations… including information from remote areas.”

Infrared played a key part of this, with the researchers highlighting its applicability in the detection of heavy metals, analysis of sediments and detection of oil spills – identifying oil as thin as 10 µm.

However, the researchers also report that existing remote sensing technology still has some limitations, such as estimating pollutants over the vertical dimension of the water column.

The full paper by Hafeez et al. can be seen here.

3) Counterfeit caviar

Christmas tends to bring out the best in people. It also brings out the worst characteristics. And this Christmas was no exception, with Informa’s Agribusiness Intelligence reporting just after Christmas that more than 5.5 tons of “a substance simulating caviar” had been seized from an illegal underground workshop in Moscow. This was to be canned and distributed to local markets as red caviar. According to the report, there was no fish DNA present in tested samples.  

Just two days later. Russia’s Hand of Moscow website reported that 900kg of fake black caviar had been seized – worth over half a million pounds (USD 726,000). The manufacturers wrote on the label that it was produced using an “old Astrakhan recipe.” This time there was fish DNA, with the results of molecular genetic analysis showing it as a hybrid of Kaluga and Amur sturgeon, which is not found in nature.

The two cases follow a 2008 ruling, in which Russians were asked to refrain from the purchase of caviar containing the additive methenamine, which decomposes in the stomach’s acid to formaldehyde. It also highlights the incentives for criminals to create counterfeit food products or use dangerous additives. It’s not just limited to Russia, with incidents including the Chinese baby milk scandal, the UK horsemeat/halal lamb burger contaminations, and Austrian wine makers’ use of antifreeze all making notable examples.

Mid-infrared sensors provide a portable and low-cost part of detecting contaminants such as methenamine before they get into the food chain. If you’ve not already read it, our recent blog7 specification considerations for food contamination detection systems using infrared sensor’s highlights the scale of the problem and how it can be counteracted. As we cited then: “With food prices being driven up by climate change, the gains for (and therefore the risk of) organisations using bulking ingredients can only increase.”

4) The escalating pharma counterfeiting problem

The December issue of Pharma Times highlights the scale of the counterfeit pharmaceuticals sector and it is well worth a read. As the article points out: “Pharmaceutical products are of vital importance to the healthcare system of every country on the planet. Yet intellectual property infringement means this is an industry rife with counterfeits, and with estimates of €27billion revenue lost annually in Europe alone, an issue of increasing scale and importance.”

Adding that the “World Health Organisation (WHO) recently estimated that one-third of all medicines sold worldwide are illegitimate,” and that “e-commerce is providing a gateway for illegitimate products which falsely associate themselves with reputable brands to give themselves credibility.”

The problem of buying counterfeit drugs is well highlighted by Xanax sales in the UK. Pfizer’s Xanax is a popular stress-relief drug in the US, but here in the UK just 14 prescriptions have been written. Despite this, according to a March 2018 analysis by the BBC, 1.5 million counterfeit Xanax pills were sold in the UK in a 21-month period between 2015 and 2017, and these had been laced with a wide range of contaminants – from acid and heavy metals to floor polish.

As we’ll highlight in our upcoming blog on pharmaceutical counterfeit detection using mid and near-infrared sensors, the ability to analyse the chemical structure using such techniques offers a simple way for regulators to police what is coming in to the country to ensure it is safe. And systems, such as TruScan by Thermo Fisher, already exist to do just this.