Derek Shaw, a physics major at Weber State University, recently presented his data on X-ray fluorescence detection techniques to help detect lead in the human body.

Commonly referred to as lead poisoning, the buildup of lead within a human system does not have any obvious or immediate symptoms.  The effects of high concentrations of lead are generally a chronic build up and include results such as infertility, kidney disease, cerebral palsy, paralysis, as well as increased risks for heart attack or stroke.  Current employable methods of lead detection are carried out either through blood or bone analysis.

“The blood test is only a short term test. The body’s going to filter most of the lead out, but once it gets into the bones, it stays there for a very long time,” Shaw said.

Lead, best detected through a bone biopsy, stays in human bones for approximately 15 years. Shaw thought this had obvious flaws, requiring recovery time and expensive procedures.  An alternative method was the subject of his research.

X-ray fluorescence utilizes low-energy gamma rays without any surgery or recovery time. The process takes approximately 40 minutes and provides an accurate history of the lead buildup over a period of time. The source of this radiation emits photons, which knock electrons out of the inner shells of the lead atoms. The source used in Shaw’s work was a synthetic isotope of Cadmium. This is analyzed with spectroscopy because every element has a fingerprint of its own spectral lines that are emitted.

Shaw spent most of his time using Gaussian analysis to calibrate the instrument, so that in future experimentation, the analysis of the results will be more direct. The experiments were conducted on a lead brick standard and then on synthetic bone with various concentrations of lead.

In realistic application of the work, the instrument would need a source of Cadmium that had undergone few half-lives in order to produce statistically significant data on human bones.

“These same techniques have also been used to detect lead in things like toys, jewelry and coffee mugs,” Shaw said.

Shaw’s adviser Michelle Arnold also commented that the research could be used on various bones in the body as long as they were not too densely covered by tissues.

“Because the radiation is so low energy it can’t penetrate more than a few inches of tissue,” Shaw said.

Both Shaw and Arnold are hoping the work will be able to change the treatment of chronic lead exposures.

“Especially in ground water,” Shaw said, “wells that are personally owned and not regulated by government, we would like to show that even though the concentrations of lead are below the current standard, the accumulation can be harmful.”

Shaw also collaborated with Collin Inglefield, another physics professor at WSU, who said, “I like that these Wednesday seminars give the students a chance to present in front of their peers. And they give to the audience because if you were to take a physics class you learn about physics 200 years ago, and the lectures talk about physics today.”

Ronald Marx, president of the physics club, is attempting to add to these seminars to a monthly conference where physics’ students can actually present their numbers. The physics club’s current enrollment is down but is open to any physics majors or minors. Any interested students can find more information by meeting with any of the physics faculty or visiting the faculty web page.


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