Asif Zia and Subhas Mukhopadhyay developed an electrochemical sensing system that is able to rapidly quantify DEHP, a synthetic compound that induces flexibility in packaging but which can leach into the surrounding environment.
DEHP, which interferes with the body’s natural hormonal system, has been linked to genetic, developmental and fertility defects in humans, the researchers said.
The World Health Organisation classifies concentrations of DEHP greater than six parts per billion as hazardous for human health.
Dr Zia’s 2.5x2.5mm sensor can be swirled through a liquid to detect concentration levels as low as two parts per billion, using a test that takes less than 10 minutes.
It is coated with a molecular imprinted polymer that selectively catches only DEHP molecules in liquids, which “stick” by forming weak hydrogen bonds with the coating.
After the sensor is rinsed, spectroscopy is used to deduce the concentration of DEHP present.
Dr Zia said the reusable technology was fast, simple to use and sensitive enough to detect small amounts of DEHP. Previous methods, he said, required lab work and could take up to a week, compared to the minutes it would take with his new technology.
“Some countries, like the United States, have already banned DEHP’s use in plastics but for others who have not, this device provides a simple and cost-effective way to make sure there aren’t harmful levels of contamination in juices or other drinks,” Dr Zia said.