Mass Spectrometry Investigates Pollution Problem

At the start of the 20th century, the oil boom in Texas had a massive impact the area’s economic growth, as well as having a dramatic influence on the ecology of the area. Often termed the ‘gusher age’, this time period saw Texas, Oklahoma and California overtake Russia as the top petroleum producing location in the world. However, the petroleum brine produces as a byproduct in the oil extraction process was released along the Texan coast. Petroleum brine contains hydrocarbons and dissolved minerals which have a detrimental effect on the areas wildlife and plantation. Despite the ban of the release of petroleum brine in 1993, the pollution is still burdening the ecosystem over 20 years later. Environmentalists have turned to high-resolution mass spectrometry to offer insight into the underlying environmental pollutants in the area.

Nueces Bay, located in Southwestern Texas, was identified as an area still affected by the petroleum discharge, with some species of oyster still incapable of surviving in the polluted waters. Restoration efforts have had difficulty in identifying the source of toxicity in the bay, thus preventing a successful strategy to be determined to rebuild habitat health. Members of the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi team took water samples from multiple locations around the bay to gain an understanding of the chemical compounds within the water. From 15 sample sites spread across two transects situated in the north and south of the bay, the team used a full scan acquisition approach with the latest mass spectrometers to investigate the chemical makeup of samples. With variation seen between the multiple sample sites, the team were able to identify between 1,800 and 4,000 unique chemical compounds in samples. Although oxygen-, carbon- and hydrogen-containing molecules were found evenly between north and south locations, a larger amount of phosphorus-containing compounds were found in samples taken from the northern transect.

Interestingly the large amount of organophosphorus compounds found in the northern area didn’t originate from the petroleum brine, but was in fact due to pesticides used in agricultural areas in the north. However, phosphorus-rich fertilisers and pesticides have been banned in the area for many years, so investigators were confused as to why the compounds were still prevalent in the area. It was found that petroleum brine contained iron, this would combine with the phosphorus ions released in fertiliser runoff and be absorbed by sediment particles. Bacteria in the sediment of the bay, when running out of oxygen in the oxygen-deprived area, would oxidize the iron into soluble ferrous forms to produce energy, this releases the absorbed organophosphorus molecules into the water. These organophosphorus compounds are being analysed using liquid chromatography coupled with high-resolution mass spectrometry to help identify the areas containing the largest amounts of the pollutant. Further mass spectrum analysis is planned to help understand the degradation of the organophosphorus molecules, helping to recover the ecosystem of Nueces Bay.

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