WHEN HAZARDOUS-WASTE areas are cleaned, about 40% of those considerable expenses go toward collecting and testing water, soil, and air samples. In addition to the high cost of the laboratory work, it can often take months to get the results back.
One solution: equipment that can measure contaminants right on site. Tufts University chemist Albert Robbat has developed one such "laboratory in a box." Robbat's kit combines a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer in a one-cubic-foot metal box that's light enough for two people to lug out to a cleanup site, and it provides quick readouts on the presence of gasoline, pesticides, solvents, and other noxious stuff. The box slashed the time it took to analyze materials at a Navy base in Yuma, Ariz., last year, Robbat says.
Still, only 5% of all samples collected at hazardous-waste sites are analyzed in the field, according to Tufts' Center for Field Analytical Studies & Technology. Why? Manufacturers are reluctant to produce innovative testing gear because it can take years to get lawyer-shy regulators to approve testing done outside of conventional laboratories, say Tufts researchers.