At the Winter Conference on Plasma Spectrochemistry, Robert L. Jones, who recently retired from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), discussed his career at the CDC, and how his work with inductively coupled plasma–mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) assisted in addressing pivotal public health crises.
On Tuesday, the second Heritage Lecture took place at the Winter Conference on Plasma Spectrochemistry. This talk, given by Robert L. Jones, was titled, “CDC’s Clinical ICP-MS Laboratory – Accomplishments, Innovations, and Public Health Successes” and focused on how the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) played a critical role during his career there in addressing numerous public health crises.
The decision to treat people depends on the ability to quantify contaminants rapidly and accurately, Jones said. The goal of the laboratory he worked at was to detect, diagnose, treat, and prevent disease and unsafe exposures in human populations (1).
Jones’s talk was structured around the four primary investigations that he worked on. These include studies from state health departments, national health surveys, epidemiological aids, and terrorism preparedness and response. The CDC generally asks a few basic questions when determining their need to get involved: Is the exposure high enough to warrant immediate intervention, and are toxicant levels increasing or decreasing over time in the target population?
For any investigation the CDC undertakes, the primary first step is to screen the materials that will be used to house the samples. Jones explained in his talk that the initial process for screening materials to use for the study is a very important part of the process because the containers need to be “tested” and the metal content must be certified (1). If it is not, the CDC could obtain false results. The screening program requirements for toxic metals are particularly onerous because uranium and lead are used in the creation of many containers that the CDC need to use but cannot. Jones detailed the screening process for containers in his talk as an extensive process with a tight window: there is a 60-day window to show all materials meet the criteria, and if the guidelines are not met, the method must continue to be worked on (1).
One notable study Jones discussed included investigating a cancer cluster in Fallon/Churchill County, Nevada. By measuring 138 chemicals they found abnormal levels of arsenic and tungsten significantly higher than the reference levels (1). This study helped bring awareness to the possibility that increased exposure to tungsten was bad for humans, as there was no published research on it.
Jones also spoke about the CDC’s terrorism response. Jones talked about how he and his team investigated the first responders that were on the scene in the aftermath of 9/11, measuring 321 firefighters for traces of over 100 chemicals (1). They discovered during their work that the first responders had significantly higher levels of antimony compared to other firefighters, which resulted in a reexamination of fire-retardant materials, building materials, and protective equipment for firefighters (1).
(1) Jones, R. L. CDC’s Clinical ICP-MS Laboratory – Accomplishments, Innovations, and Public Health Successes. Presented at the Winter Conference on Plasma Spectrochemistry, in Tucson, Arizona, on January 16th, 2024.