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CHESTERFIELD • A medical research lab here knows it is missing $700,000 worth of gold dust, but not how. Police have been called to help determine whether it was lost or stolen.

Chesterfield police launched an investigation this week after a Pfizer Inc. employee conducting an inventory failed to find it. Experts say that depending upon the purity, that much gold would weigh from 30 to 70 pounds. The purer the gold, the lighter it would be.

“We’re not even sure if they just didn’t account for it and it was used naturally, or if it was stolen or misplaced,” said police Capt. Steven Lewis. “Some of it is gone and some isn’t.”

Officials said the pharmaceutical giant paid $700,000 for the material last year for use in research in its facility at 700 Chesterfield Parkway West.

Pfizer did not want to comment on how it uses gold. The company issued a statement saying: “We are taking this matter very seriously and working closely with local law enforcement authorities on this ongoing investigation. It would be inappropriate for us to comment any further at this time until the police investigation has been completed.”

Local dealers and refiners said a gold dust thief would face layers of problems trying to sell it here.

It is rare for anyone except jewelers to sell gold dust, noted Mike Matula, general manager of Missouri Gold Buyers, 4611 South Kingshighway Boulevard in St. Louis. It usually arrives in containers no bigger than an average pill bottle. And buyers are wary of the quality of what strangers bring in.

“If someone showed up with a bucket full of this stuff, no one would buy it over the counter, not from our store at least,” Matula explained. “Any kind of dust I’ve ever gotten has turned out to be nothing. We buy gold at its melt value, and there’s no way to test (gold dust) in the store.

“I imagine it would be pretty difficult to show up with 50 pounds of it without being noticed.”

And it would be hard to contain, said Brad Jones, spokesman for the California-based Gold Prospectors Association of America. “Gold dust is really fine and it can be blown into the wind,” he warned.

It also has gone up in value since Pfizer bought it, suggested Gary Sturgill, trade show manager for the association. “You can add at least $100,000 to the value of that from last year,” he said.

Gold dust is most often a byproduct from the gold prospecting and mining process, but refined gold also can be ground into dust. Mints sometimes use dust to make coins, Sturgill said. Jewelers collect dust from equipment, such as buffing wheels, and shavings from their work areas, and cash it in at refineries.

Mark Gibson, a gold refiner from Hauser & Miller Co., at 10950 Lin Valle Drive in south St. Louis County, said he never heard of the material being used by the pharmaceutical industry.

But online reference sites note that besides its common use in jewelry, gold has applications in medicine, electronics and even food decoration.

Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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