Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Alarm over shortage of chemical solvent used to test products
By Bertrand Benoit in Berlin Published: March 11 2009 02:00 Last updated: March 11 2009 02:00 The crisis in the car industry has led to a global shortage of a chemical solvent used for everything from checking the mould level in a chocolate bar to making sure a tablet of aspirin is safe. The solvent, acetonitrile, is a by-product of the process used to make acrylic carpets and plastic parts for the car industry, and as demand for cars has plunged in the global financial crisis, so have supplies of acetonitrile. That is alarming, say some observers, because the substance is used to break down products such as food or pharmaceuticals into their component parts to check their safety or efficacy, a process known as chromatography. "This is very serious," said the head of procurement at a large European pharmaceuticals group. "If you cannot test products you cannot sell them." And, "in many cases, you cannot even make them". In addition, the chromatography equipment used in many laboratories depends on acetonitrile rather than other solvents, making it difficult to use cheaper or more plentiful substitutes. "You may have the best chromatography [equipment], but without acetonitrile they will be as much use to you as a car with flat tyres," said Russ Swan, editor of Laboratorytalk trade website. The shortage has led to spiralling prices. Few companies will talk about what they pay nowbut there is a consensus that prices have risen eight-fold since last year, on average. One European public sector laboratory says it is now paying €80 ($100) per litre for acetonitrile compared with €4.80 early last year. There are reports of panic-hoarding and tainted supplies being sold by "cowboy suppliers". Specialist online forums are full of pleas from laboratory heads desperately looking for supplies. Bernd Krüger, chief executive of the German arm of Sigma Aldrich, one of the largest acetonitrile traders, said his company has been rationing sales. "You wouldn't believe the number of people who call me and say they will pay any price." With no increase in supplies in sight, labs have been scrambling to minimise consumption by switching to other solvents; using different chromatography equipment or recycling the product whenever they can, and using a lower-grade version. Yet each solution brings new difficulties. "We cannot cut down on the number of tests we are conducting, which is set by law," says Katrin Grimmer of the Bavarian state office for health and food safety. "But we are looking at all imaginable options."