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Research theme : Trace elements

The heart of the operation lies in the unit's analytical ability in the field of trace elements that makes it possible for analyses to be performed by outside parties, and above all to support the various research projects methodically. Great efforts are being made to improve analyses in highly diverse areas further, also to perfect new techniques in order to be able more accurately to determine trace elements that could pose a threat to the safety of the food-chain.

As part of the chemical safety of the food-chain, analyses of Arsenic (As), Cadmium (Cd), Mercury (Hg), Lead (Pb) and other trace elements are carried out in very diverse matrices. The analyses of the four elements to be quantified take place by accredited bodies (BELAC 172-TEST).
Trace elements
In the field of scientific research, the unit has among other things been heavily involved in biomonitoring of the atmospheric deposition of trace elements by means of dish cultures. What is special here is that links between physical-chemical measurements of air pollution and the accumulation of trace elements in cultures of vegetables and grasses are being investigated as a way of finding out about transfers into the food chain.

The unit is also heavily involved in international projects aimed at mapping the spread of trace elements through the atmosphere. Thus, we have a European monitoring network through which mosses are being sampled and analysed over five years in order to ascertain the European distribution pattern of contamination.


A second area of research is concerned with the transfer of trace elements from the ground into the food-chain, and its impact on foodstuffs of plant and animal origins. Animal products being investigated in this way are the meat, kidneys and livers of cattle and free-range chicken eggs. Wherever possible, the entire food-chain is studied.

In addition, special attention is being paid to the separation of arsenic and selenium. This means that various chemicals form in foodstuffs, and compounds are created and are determined separately. Research into separation of this kind is vital, because the toxicity and bioavailability of the different forms may vary greatly.

In certain foods that are rich in arsenic (such as some marine organisms), it seems that this element usually occurs in a form that is neither toxic nor bioavailable.
Selenium (Se) is a element that has a positive effect on health in protecting against certain types of cancers.However, where there is an excess of Trace elementsselenium, toxic effects may occur, and the margin of safety between too little and too much selenium is very narrow. In our region, there is if anything too little selenium in food. This has something to do with a limited presence in the soil and low uptake by plants. Moreover, the bioavailability of a number of selenium compounds is very limited.
For this reasons it is important to know precisely which forms occur in the various foodstuffs. The bioavailability of each form is being investigated in a separate study.

A risk-assessment has been linked to most of the scientific studies being carried out. This means that not just the presence of trace elements and their bioavailability is being studied, but that risks to the consumer at higher levels are also being assessed.

The unit also has many years' experience in the field of analysing fluorides in plant material and animal feeds, as well as chlorides in plant material.