Environmental Pollutants and the Role of the Modern-Day Scientist

Clean Water


Climate change, environmental damage, habitat loss, population growth, and increasing resource demands are all global challenges that must be addressed. To find sustainable solutions to these problems, we must understand how human actions are contributing to them and how we should proceed to safeguard the future of mankind and our environment.

Environmental science is a vast, multidisciplinary field

Environmental science provides vital understanding of the effects of human activities and the increasing global population on our resources and ecosystems. Experts including meteorologists, geologists, chemists, biologists, physicists, computer scientists, demographers, and economists work together under the umbrella of environmental science to understand environmental problems and develop long-lasting solutions.1-3

Environmental science is a huge field, covering topics including climate change, pollution, and wastewater treatment. There is a growing awareness of the effects of human impacts on the environment, and growing interest in environmental science. Numerous organizations, governmental bodies, and international conferences have been set up since the 1960s to conduct and coordinate environmental research, resulting in a vast amount of research on the subject that now informs global policies.1-3

The role of analysis in environmental science

Monitoring and analysis is a critical part of environmental science. Human activities typically release pollutants into the air, water, and soil. Monitoring and tracking polluting chemicals and understanding their effects on the environment, ecosystems, and human health is a vital part of environmental science.4

Using reliable analysis techniques is essential for producing accurate and useful environmental data. As a result, it is important to adopt new improved analysis techniques and technologies to improve datasets and inform safe practices. This article will outline new analytical methods that are revolutionizing the field of environmental science and the organizations that are working to ensure a sustainable future for our world.4

Access to clean water is essential for human health and virtually all human activities. Unfortunately, our water supplies are becoming polluted, and water scarcity is becoming an increasing problem. Chapter 1 of this article outlines some of the latest technologies that are tackling water scarcity, and water analysis techniques that are essential for research, implementation, and monitoring these new technologies.

Organic compounds represent a large number of pollutants that are released into the environment by human activities. Even compounds that are previously banned, particularly those that are persistent and long-lasting, can have devastating effects on human and animal health. Chapter 2 discusses the analysis of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have been banned in most countries for decades but are still threatening killer whales and other marine species.

The effects of pollutants on human health can often be difficult to quantify. Chapter 3 outlines the use of human biomonitoring to provide definitive exposure data by analyzing contaminants present in biological samples including urine, blood, and hair.

The release of some organic compounds is unavoidable. Volatile organic compounds are produced from a vast number of industries, but there are strict regulations in place to limit their emissions into the atmosphere. Chapter 4 outlines new remote technology that is improving VOC monitoring.

Environmental Science at Pittcon 2019

Environmental science is a globally relevant field, which will be heavily featured at Pittcon 2019. There will be a number of symposia and oral sessions focused on environmental analysis including ‘High-Resolution Mass Spectrometry for the Analysis of Organic Contaminants,’ ‘New Trends in Environmental Testing and Protection of the Environment.’ Other sessions that may be of interest to environmental scientists include ‘Advances in Non-Targeted and Suspect Screening to Identify Unknowns Using Mass Spectrometry,’ ‘Water Quality and Incidental Contamination,’ ‘Water Quality Measurements,’ ‘Sample Preparation Approaches for Environmental Samples,’ and ‘Environmental Analytical Methods Using Mass Spectrometry.’

The Pittcon Expo will feature demonstrations of the latest analytical equipment and provide opportunities to meet providers and technical experts, so you are bound to find the perfect solution for all your environmental analysis needs.

The Pittcon Conference and Expo is the ideal place for environmental scientists to learn about developments in environmental analysis and stay up to date with the latest technology. With a range of relevant symposia, short-courses, and exhibitors, Pittcon 2019 will be a valuable experience for environmental scientists. This article outlines some of the developments in environmental science that will be highlighted at Pittcon 2019.


  1. ‘The Role of Science in Sustainable Development and Environmental Protection Decisionmaking’ — Lemons J, Brown DA, Sustainable Development: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy, 1995.
  2. ‘Introduction to Environmental Analysis’ — Reeve, R, Wiley, 2002.
  3. ‘The Importance of Environmental Science’ — Al-Kandari AR, GeoJournal, 1994.
  4. ‘Environmental Sciences: Scope and Importance’ in ‘Introduction to Environmental Sciences, Chapter: Environmental Sciences-Scope and Importance’ — Prasad J, Khoiyangbam RS, Gupta N, TERI, 2015.

Chapter 1 – Ensuring a Sustainable Future for Wastewater Treatment

The current water economy follows a linear model of ‘take-make-waste.’ Improved wastewater treatment processes that efficiently extract energy and nutrients from wastewater to create value would help us move towards a sustainable circular water economy.

Water is one of the world’s most important resources. Although water constitutes 70% of the Earth’s composition, it is estimated that only 3% of the Earth’s water is freshwater, and less than 1% is surface water available for drinking and other human activities.1-3

Water is essential to practically every human activity and is used in the production of everything from food to clothes and electricity. Agriculture represents the greatest proportion of water use worldwide, using 70% of the water consumed, followed by industry at 20% and domestic uses at 10%. Maintaining an adequate supply of clean water is essential for people around the globe.4

Water that has been contaminated by commercial or domestic activities is considered wastewater. In many parts of the world, it is common practice to discharge agricultural, industrial, and urban wastewater directly into the environment. However, untreated wastewater can contain toxic pollutants and pathogens, making it harmful to the environment and human health, and reducing our clean water resources.4,5

Wastewater treatment can remove pathogens, inorganic, and organic pollutants, helping to maintain a supply of clean water for human activities. Unfortunately, only 20% of wastewater is currently treated before discharge, meaning the majority of the worlds water sources are polluted. Without treatments that can produce clean water from wastewater, accessing water to support essential human activities like food production will become increasingly difficult.4,5

Water scarcity is a global problem

The increasing human population is the greatest challenge to maintaining our freshwater resources. A larger population needs a greater food supply, and it is estimated that world agriculture will need to produce 60% more food by 2050, an increase that would place great pressure on our already overstretched water systems.4,5

When human activities consume water, natural replenishment often fails to restore water sources to their original levels. As the human population increases, water scarcity will increase. In 2015, more than 1.7 billion were living in areas where water use exceeded natural replenishment. By 2025, estimates suggest that two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed countries.4,5

The problem of water scarcity is compounded by the loss of water through poor infrastructure. Damaged pipes and inefficient distribution systems result in the loss of an estimated 46 billion liters of drinking water every day, representing an economic loss of 1.5% of GDP.4.5

As existing water sources are becoming more strained, new sources of water must be developed. Employing water treatment technologies that produce clean water for reuse or discharge into the environment to replenish water resources are one way to tackle water scarcity. Furthermore, wastewater treatment protects the environment from toxic pollutants. However, current water treatment processes are expensive, energy intensive, and unsustainable, resulting in limited uptake.4-6

Designing a zero-water water economy

Traditionally, water is used and treated following a linear model. Water is extracted from sources such as rivers and lakes, treated, used, and then discharged back into the environment. The current linear model of water consumption means that water becomes more polluted as it travels through the system, making reuse impossible.7,8

One alternative to a traditional linear cycle is a circular economy. Circular economies aim to minimize waste and make the most of available resources by reusing and recycling materials and energy repeatedly.6-8

A circular water economy is a more economically and environmentally sustainable model for water usage. In a circular economy, the energy, nutrients, and water in wastewater are extracted and reused. Water is circulated in closed loops and reused repeatedly, resulting in a cycle that is sustainable and zero-waste.7,8

Achieving a circular water economy relies on developing technologies that can efficiently extract energy and nutrients from wastewater. Such technologies would enable wastewater treatment plants to become more efficient and resource positive, therefore generating value beyond just treating dirty water.6-8

Other important factors in a circular water economy include designing industrial and commercial processes that manage water use and contamination, creating local organic nutrient cycles to reuse solid organic waste, and managing floodplains to prevent freshwater contamination.7,8

Developing technologies that support a circular water economy

One technology that could be important in a circular water economy is hydrothermal processing. Hydrothermal processing uses water, elevated temperatures and increased pressures to convert biomass to biocrude oil and natural gas. Hydrothermal processing can be used on a variety of biomass waste, including wastewater sludge, to extract energy. The process solves the problem of disposing of wastewater sludge and provides valuable, renewable fuels from waste.6,9

Anaerobic digestion, which uses bacteria to produce biogas from biomass, can also be used to extract energy from wastewater biomass. In addition, thermal hydrolysis, which uses high pressures and high temperatures to make biosolid waste more biodegradable, could be used as a pre-treatment before anaerobic digestion to increase biogas production and produce more energy from wastewater.6

Many scientists and organizations are working on technologies including hydrothermal processing, anaerobic digestion, and thermal hydrolysis, to support a circular water economy. One organization that has been set up to support the development of such technologies is The Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology (LIFT), a multi-pronged initiative undertaken by the Water Research Foundation (WRF) and the Water Environment Federation (WEF).6,10,11

Innovations in wastewater treatment at Pittcon 2019

Zonetta English, a research manager at MSD, will introduce LIFT and its work in her presentation at Pittcon 2019, entitled ‘Wastewater, A Renewable Energy Source’ She will highlight the roles of emerging technologies in turning wastewater into a renewable energy resource as part of a circular water economy. Zonetta will also discuss analytical techniques that are relevant to wastewater analysis and processing.6

Reliable analysis is essential for development, implication, and maintenance of wastewater treatment technologies. However, analysis of wastewater both before and after treatment can be challenging due to the variability of wastewater components. Pittcon delegates who are interested in wastewater treatment and analysis should visit the 2019 Pittcon Expo, which will feature companies supplying a range of equipment for accurate and reliable wastewater analysis including Waters Corporation, Teledyne Isco, Astoria-Pacific, and Arizona Instruments.12-16


  1. ‘Managing water in a changing world’ — Cassardo C, Jones JAA, Water, 2011.
  2. ‘Water ethics and water resource management. Ethics and Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific (ECCAP) Project, Working Group 14 Report.’ — Lui J, Dorjderem A, Fu J, Lei X, Lui H, Macer D, Qiao Q, Sun A, Tachiyama K, Yu L, Zheng Y, UNESCO Bangkok, 2011.
  3. ‘Environment, climate warming and water management’ — Kibona D, Kidulile G, Rwabukambara F, Transition Studies Review, 2009.
  4. ‘Water and sustainable development’ http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/water_and_sustainable_development.shtml
  5. ‘Review on Waste Water Treatment Technologies’ — Dhote J, Ingole S, Chavhan A, International Journal of Engineering Research & Technology, 2012.
  6. ‘Turning Wastewater into Renewable Energy’ https://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=845
  7. ‘Towards circular economy – a wastewater treatment perspective, the Presa Guadalupe case’ — Flores CC, Bressers H, Gutierrez C, de Boer C, Management Research Review, 2018.
  8. ‘Rethinking the water cycle’ https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/rethinking-the-water-cycle
  9. ‘A review of hydrothermal biomass processing’ — Kubilay Tekin K, Karagöz S, Bektaş S, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 2014.
  10. ‘What is LIFT’ http://www.werf.org/lift/About_Lift/lift/What_Is_LIFT.aspx?hkey=2971a73b-83bc-4a38-8bb3-180fd325c5dc
  11. ‘Water Reuse’ http://www.werf.org/lift/Focus_Areas/Focus_Areas/Water_Reuse_LIFT_Tech/lift/tfa/Water_Reuse_Technology_Focus_Area.aspx?hkey=9da8cdcb-2cfb-4215-b474-85b5f55bbd02
  12. ‘Interview with Zonetta English’ http://www.advancesinwaterresearch.org/awr/20180406/MobilePagedArticle.action?articleId=1394920#articleId1394920
  13. ‘Waters corporation’ http://www.waters.com
  14. ‘Teledyne Isco’ https://www.teledyneisco.com/en-us
  15. ‘Astoria-Pacific’  http://www.astoria-pacific.com
  16. ‘Arizona Instruments’  https://www.azic.com/

Pittcon Tracks

Bioanalytical & Life Science
Biological molecules and xenobiotics (drugs, toxins) and their metabolites; study of biological systems; biosensors; forensic science and toxicology
Cannabis & Psychedelic
Identification, quantitative measurement, extraction, and quality assurance of cannabis-based and psychedelic products
Environment & Energy
Environmental detection and monitoring; energy production and storage; sustainability, climate, and green chemistry; food science/safety and agriculture
Instrumentation & Nanoscience
Instrumentation, detection, and sensors; laboratory information systems, data analysis, and artificial intelligence; characterization and processing of nanomaterials; art and archeology
Pharmaceutical & Biologic
Evaluating chemical composition and properties/activities of medicinal drugs and biologics; high-throughput screening and process control; drug discovery and design; personal care and consumer products
Professional Development
Leadership and power/soft skills; career navigation, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), communication, and entrepreneurship; education and teaching and more

Chapter 2 -Tackling Environmental Pollutants of the Past

Banned pollutants can have lasting and devastating environmental impacts. Accurate and reliable environmental monitoring is essential for tracking pollution sources and their effects. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are one example of a banned persistent organic pollutant that is difficult to analyze. However, in the case of PCBs, 2D gas chromatography may offer a reliable solution.

Tracking current sources of environmental pollution is important, but environmental scientists must also be aware of previous sources of pollution and their potential effects on the environment. Analyzing and monitoring pollutants of the past can draw attention to their impact and enable targeted clean-up.

Banned pollutants can still have devastating effects on the environment

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are persistent organic pollutants that were previously used as chemical insulators in electrical equipment. The toxicity of PCBs combined with their longevity led to their production and use of becoming banned in the US in 1979. However, prior to the ban, millions of tons of PCBs entered the air, water, and soil.1

PCBs are unreactive and resistant to breakdown, so persist in environments around the world. Moreover, PCBs is still being released into the environment from poorly maintained hazardous waste sites, improper disposal of equipment containing PCBs, and leaks from equipment that is still in use. Although PCB levels in the environment initially fell after bans were implemented, they have remained relatively constant since the mid-1990s.1

Over the past 60 years, PCBs have accumulated in the environment and infiltrated the food chain. Consequently, the highest levels of PCBs are now found in apex predators. Exposure to PCBs can result in a range of adverse effects for both humans and animals including carcinogenic effects, and effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system.2,3

The highest reported levels of PCBs have been found in killer whales, particularly those in close proximity to industrial countries that produced large quantities of PCBs before their ban. The accumulation of PCBs in the fatty tissues of killer whales has been attributed to their apex position in the marine food chain, their long lifespan, and the high transfer of PCBs from mother to calf through fat-enriched milk. It has been suggested that such high levels of PCB are contributing to the population decline and local extinctions of killer whales.3-5

The analysis of PCBs is challenging

Monitoring levels of individual PCBs in the environment helps to identify and eliminate sources of polluting PCBs. Measuring levels of PCBs in the environment is typically conducted by analyzing environmental using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). However, the class of PCBs includes a large number of similar individual compounds, making detailed analysis difficult.6

A single GC injection is not able to separate PCB compounds effectively, and analyses of complex samples containing many PCB species often result in chromatographs with a large number of unresolved, unidentified components. As a result, environmental research and monitoring tend to focus on a small number of PCBs.

While there are 209 individual PCB compounds, a recent literature review found that 13% of environmental PCB studies focused on only 7 PCBs, 9% studied 12 PCBs, and only 6% examined all 209 congeners.7,8

Two-dimensional GC (GCxGC) offers significant advantages over one-dimensional GC for PCB analysis. GCxGC uses two different GC columns connected in series to provide a 2D GC spectrum with increased resolution and reduced signal-to-noise ratios. Furthermore, 2D chromatograms are constructed so that similar compounds are clustered in bands, making peak identification easier. Although no single method can identify all 209 PCBs, GCxGC-MS is a rapid and highly accurate technique that is ideal for monitoring environmental levels of 180 PCBs.7,8

Developments in PCB analysis to be showcased at Pittcon 2019

At Pittcon 2019, Michelle Misselwitz of Chemistry Matters Inc. will give a talk entitled ‘Analytical Chemistry Lessons from History: The Discovery of PCBs and the Future of Analytical Methods for Environmental Contaminants.’ Her presentation will provide a historical review of PCB analysis methods and discuss the benefits of GCxGC analysis for environmental forensic investigations and routine environmental monitoring.

In her research, Michelle uses GCxGC-MS technology from LECO, who will be exhibiting their Pegasus 4D GCxGC at the 2019 Pittcon Expo. The Expo will also feature Shimadzu with their GC-MS solutions, CDS Analytical with their analytical pyrolyzes, and Phenomenex with their GC columns. Pittcon 2019 is the ideal place to meet the environmental analysis experts and see all the latest technology for GCxGC.9-13

Additional presentations that may be relevant for delegates who are interested in PCB analysis include ‘Simple, Quick, Low Cost & High Throughput Sample Clean Up for Dioxin & PCBs Analysis’ by Rudolf Addink of Fluid Management Systems and ‘Assessing Bioaccumulation of Emerging and Legacy Flame Retardants in Common Tern from the Niagara Migration Flyway Using Gas Chromatography Tandem Mass Spectrometry’ by Steven Travis of the University at Buffalo.


  1. ‘Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)’
  2. ‘Polychlorinated biphenyls: New evidence from the last decade’ — Faroon O, Ruiz P, Toxicology and Industrial Health, 2015.
  3. ‘PCB pollution continues to impact populations of orcas and other dolphins in European waters’ — Jepson PB et al, Scientific Reports, 2016.
  4. ‘Predicting global killer whale population collapse from PCB pollution’ — Desforges JP et al, Science, 2018
  5. ‘Persistent threats need persistent counteraction: Responding to PCB pollution in marine mammals’ — Stuart-Smith SJ, Jepson PD, Marnine Policy, 2017.
  6. ‘Heavy metal and PCB spatial distribution pattern in sediments within an urban catchment—contribution of historical pollution sources’ — Dias-Ferreira C, Pato RL, Varejão JB, Tavares AO, Ferreira AJD, Journal of Soils and Sediments, 2016.
  7. ‘Improved separation of the 209 PCBs using GCxGC-TOFMS’ — Focant J, Sjödin A, Patterson D, Organohalogen Comnpounds, 2004.
  8. ‘How Two-Dimensional Gas Chromatography (GCxGC) Increases Routine Laboratory Performance’
  9. ‘LECO’ https://www.leco.com
  10. ‘Shimadzu’ https://www.shimadzu.co.uk
  11. ‘CDS Analytical’ https://www.cdsanalytical.com
  12. ‘Phenomenex’ https://www.phenomenex.com/
  13. ‘Cole-Parmer’ https://www.coleparmer.co.uk

Chapter 3 -Assessing the Health Burden Caused by Environmental Pollutants

Human biomonitoring can quantify chemical exposure levels and the effects of exposure in humans. It involves measuring chemicals, metabolites, and biomarkers in biological samples. Reliable biomonitoring relies on accurate analytical techniques with sufficiently low limits of detection, combined with standardized analysis and data processing procedures.

Environmental pollutants, such as heavy metals, PCBs, and other persistent organic pollutants, in the air, soil, water, and food can enter into human bodies by ingestion, inhalation, and skin contact. While it is critical to measure the levels of pollutants in the environment to direct the focus of clean-up operations, it is also essential to measure human exposure and the effects of pollution on human health.

Human biomonitoring quantifies chemical exposure

Understanding the effects of pollutant chemicals on humans relies on quantifying exposure and understanding the biochemical pathways of pollutants in the body. Human biomonitoring involves monitoring exposure to pollutant chemicals and their effects on the human body by measuring the levels of contaminants, metabolites, and other biomarkers in biological specimens such as blood, hair, urine, and milk.1

Human biomonitoring is the best way to quantify the biological effects of environmental pollutants, particularly chemicals that bioaccumulate and are stored in the body for long periods. It can also identify contributing lifestyle factors and specific groups who are at at-risk from exposure. As a result, human biomonitoring is considered a useful tool for informing environment and health policy decisions.1

Human biomonitoring can inform health and environmental policy

Human biomonitoring is considered the gold standard for exposure assessment. It was originally used to monitor exposure to dangerous chemicals in the workplace, but its applications are now expanding. There are now established methods for monitoring the effects of pollutants including heavy metals, persistent organic compounds, biocides, and industrial chemicals on targeted groups and general populations.2,3

The Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS), which started collecting data in 2007, was designed to provide nationally-representative data indicating the impacts of exposure to 279 chemicals in the population as a whole. The project collected blood, urine, and hair samples from participants and analyzed them for a wide range of chemicals, their metabolites, and relevant biomarkers. The data from the CHMS are used to inform regulatory risk assessments and policies intended to protect public health.4

Designing studies and analytical methods for human biomonitoring

Designing informative studies for monitoring whole populations can be challenging and require a large number of analytical techniques and methods. The CHMS used a broad range of techniques including inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), GC-MS, ultra-performance liquid chromatography-MS, colorimetric methods, and enzymatic assays. For nationwide studies, it is important to use consistent, quality analytical methods across laboratories to ensure data are both reliable and comparable.4

In the USA, the National Biomonitoring Network (NBN) has been established to provide a collaboration platform for federal, regional, state, and local laboratories that conduct human biomonitoring for use in public health practice. Through collaboration, the NBN hopes to encourage the use of biomonitoring, advance developments, and ensure the use of reliable, standardized practices across laboratories. The work of the NBN will be highlighted by Julianne Nassif of the Association of Public Health Laboratories in his talk at Pittcon 2019 entitled ‘Human Biomonitoring – The Link Between Environmental Exposures and Health Effects.’5

Human biomonitoring studies demands analytical techniques that can detect and quantify a large range of trace chemicals in complex and variable biological samples. Selecting specific chemicals and biomarkers for analysis and the relevant analytical methods primarily depends on the aims of the study. However, it is essential to consider whether there are available analytical techniques with suitable levels of detection to measure the concentration of trace elements in the population. Too often, analytical methods that are constrained by the technique’s lower detection limits are employed. Such techniques can introduce errors and bias the results of a study.3,6

Robert J Gilmore of Keramida Inc will highlight the importance of detection limits in biomonitoring in his presentation ‘The Application and Limitations of Detection Limits in Exposure and Risk Assessment.’ Robert will discuss current challenges and methodologies in the field of biomonitoring, including the issues surrounding techniques with low detection limits.6

Human biomonitoring at Pittcon 2019

Delegates interested in human biomonitoring must attend Julianne and Robert’s presentations during the ‘New Trends in Environmental Testing and Protection of the Environment’ and the ‘Detection Limits in Environmental and Analytical Chemistry’ symposia, respectively.

Other presentations that may be of interest include ‘Biomonitoring – Total Analysis and Single Particle Analysis of Selected Elements’ by Ewa M Pruszkowski from PerkinElmer, and ‘UPLC-ESI-MS/MS Method Development for the Measurement of Urinary Biomarkers of Volatile Organic Compounds: Furfural, 5-Hydroxymethylfurfural, N-Methyl-2-pyrrolidone, Benzene, and Hydrogen Cyanide Metabolites in Urine’ by Chloe Biren from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Human biomonitoring relies on a range of analytical equipment. The Pittcon Expo will feature all the analytical equipment needed for human biomonitoring including GC-MS suppliers outlined in Chapter 2. What’s more, Phenomenex will exhibit their preparative Gel Permeation Chromatography columns which can be used to analyze biomonitoring samples in accordance with standardized EPA methods. Leading ICP-MS and UPLC-MS suppliers will also exhibit their solutions for human biomonitoring.7


  1. ‘Human biomonitoring: facts and figures’ http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/276311/Human-biomonitoring-facts-figures-en.pdf
  2. ‘New human biomonitoring methods for chemicals of concern—the German approach to enhance relevance’ — Kolossa-Gehring M, Fiddicke U, Leng G Angerer J, Wolz B, International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 2017.
  3. ‘Human Biomonitoring for Environmental Chemicals’ — National Research Council, The National Academies Press,
  4. ‘An overview of human biomonitoring of environmental chemicals in the Canadian Health Measures Survey: 2007–2019’ — Haines DA, Saravanabhavan G, Werry K, Khoury C, International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 2017.
  5. ‘National Biomonitoring Network’ https://www.aphl.org/programs/environmental_health/nbn/Pages/default.aspx
  6. ‘Effects of exposure measurement error when an exposure variable is constrained by a lower limit.’ — Richardson DB, Ciampi A, American Journal of Epidemiology, 2003.
  7. ‘The Use of Phenogel GPC Columns for Environmental and Biomonitoring Applications’ https://www.phenomenex.com/ViewDocument?id=the+use+of+phenogel+gpc+columns+for+environmental+and+biomonitoring+applications+(tn-1183)

Chapter 4 – Making Field Tests Count

Field tests are vital to environmental monitoring. Advances in sampling and analytical techniques are bringing forth a new era in field testing for environmental monitoring. While advances in analytical techniques can provide better, more reliable data, it is also vital to assess new technologies and develop standardized methods for reliable environmental monitoring.

In the past, environmental science relied heavily on field tests to monitor environmental pollutants in water, soil, and air. Standardized techniques are essential for reliable environmental monitoring, as evidenced by the work of the National Biomonitoring Network mentioned in Chapter 3. This chapter describes the development of new standardized techniques for soil and air analysis which will be covered at Pittcon 2019.

Soil sampling and analysis in environmental monitoring

Environmental sampling and soil analysis is essential for screening and characterizing potentially contaminated sites and abandoned properties before reuse. Furthermore,  clean-up, compliance, and health and safety certifications all depend on reliable soil sampling and analysis.1

Field tests are one of the oldest and most well-established ways to monitor environmental contaminants in soil. Contaminants which are typically measured using field tests include volatile organic compounds (VOC), semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOC), fuels, inorganic compounds, pesticides, explosives, and radionuclides. Analysis of field soil samples relies on a variety of analytical techniques including X-ray fluorescence, colorimetric methods, radiation detectors, mercury vapor analyses, immunoassays, GC, infrared, fiber optic sensors, and biosensors.1

The traditional approach to soil field tests involves obtaining one or more discrete soil samples. Laboratories then subsample a small amount of soil to analyze for contaminants. Unfortunately, such sampling techniques can lead to misleading and inconsistent results, as an individual soil sample may not be representative of a whole site or area, particularly when contamination is heterogeneous. Furthermore, discrete sampling techniques may fail to identify areas where contaminant concentrations are unusually high. Consequently, data obtained using traditional sampling techniques are often non-reproducible and unreliable.1,2

Recently, awareness of the limitations and deficiencies of conventional soil sampling and analysis techniques has been growing. As a result, environmental scientists have designed improved methodologies that can reduce data variability and provide unbiased measurements of mean contaminant concentrations. One methodology that has gained popularity in recent years is incremental sampling.1,2

Better environmental monitoring with incremental sampling methodologies (ISM)

Incremental sampling methodologies (ISM) involve collecting and combining soil samples from within a targeted area to obtain a more representative sample. ISM uses structured sampling and processing protocol to reduce data variability and provide reliable, representative estimates of contaminant concentrations in soils.2-5

As ISM addresses some of the limitations of traditional sampling techniques and as a result, its popularity with environmental scientists has grown in recent years. ISM is a low-cost methodology that provides better data and reduced processing. Additionally, ISM can indicate areas in heterogeneous sites where contaminants exceed safe limits and enable targeted clean up. ISM has also been proven to be as good or better than traditional approaches.2-5

Since the introduction of ISM, tools for collecting ISM samples have been advancing; from traditional simple coring tools to specific sampling tools for non-cohesive sediments, sand, hard compacted soils, and other materials. ISM specific laboratory processing tools have also been developed. Many of these advances followed the release of ISM guidelines in 2012 by the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, which described a range of standard ISM sampling  and processing tools and techniques.6

ISM has now found a wide range of applications and has been demonstrated in a range of studies including estimating mean concentrations of PCB at a former landfill site, fertilizers and herbicides at a disused golf course, and weed killers at a proposed residential development site.3

Field testing at Pittcon 2019

At Pittcon 2019, Mark Bruce of TestAmerica Laboratories will give a presentation entitled ‘Environmental Incremental Sampling Methodology Update,’ where he will give an update on ISM tools and techniques designed to facilitate the cost-effective and reliable application of ISM to environmental field tests. Mark will highlight the growth in ISM applications and how ISM data is enabling environmental scientists to become more productive and produce reliable data for decision making.

TestAmerica, who has been at the forefront of ISM evaluation and implementation since 2003, will exhibit their services at the Pittcon Expo. Furthermore, the Expo will feature Environmental Express with their sample collection products for field testing, and Accelerated Technology Laboratories, Inc, who will demonstrate their laboratory information management systems for managing field samples and producing accurate reports.4,7-9

Pittcon is also the ideal place to learn about portable analysis systems for on-site field testing. The Expo will feature Arizona Instruments who provide handheld mercury detectors for field analyses, Hanna Instruments with their environmental monitoring test kit, and Merck who provide air and hygiene monitoring equipment.10,11

Monitoring volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the environment

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are common air pollutants that are emitted from chemical, petrochemical, and consumer product industries. Long-term exposure to VOCs has been linked to a range of health problems including cancer and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Short-term exposure to VOCs is associated with headaches, dizziness, memory problems, eye problems, and irritation of the respiratory tract. VOCs can also damage the Earth’s ozone layer, thereby contributing to global warming and climate change.12,13

Growing awareness of VOCs has led to the introduction of strict regulations controlling VOC emissions. Monitoring and enforcement of regulations require that authorities can monitor VOC emissions.14

Traditionally, VOC emission levels would be measured by gathering field data, but this approach is time-consuming and expensive. More recently, refinery VOC emissions have been estimated using standardized algorithms, but these estimates assume proper operating and maintenance procedures are in place, resulting in a large degree of uncertainty. Scientists are developing new ways to monitor VOC emissions from point sources and over diffuse areas, to provide more reliable estimates of total VOC emissions.14

It is important to be able to detect VOCs remotely, particularly in emergency situations such as toxic gas leaks or forest fires. There are a number of commercially available optical techniques for remote VOC monitoring, and several more are in development.14

Combining spectroscopy and computational models for environmental monitoring

Computational advances, algorithms, and machine learning are contributing to the advancement of many areas of science, and environmental monitoring is no exception. In one example, researchers used pattern recognition algorithms to detect signatures of VOCs from passive multispectral imaging data. The researchers from the University of Iowa combined algorithms with field data to create a system that can remotely detect VOCs. While field measurements can be expensive and time-consuming to obtain, they are often essential to developing algorithms that can accurately identify VOCs in a range of conditions.15,16

At Pittcon 2019, Zizi Chen will give an update on some of the University of Iowa’s latest environmental analysis research. The presentation, entitled ‘Simulated Radiance Profiles for the Automated Detection of Volatile Organic Compounds from Passive Infrared Remote Sensing Data’ will outline the group’s methodologies for the detection of VOCs and describe their attempts to develop detection algorithms using simulated training datasets, removing the need to acquire training datasets in the field.

The method developed by researchers from the University of Iowa relies on airborne hyperspectral infrared imaging to detect VOCs. The Pittcon Expo will feature the latest technology for infrared imaging including equipment from Spectral Systems and InfraRed Associates.17,18


  1. ‘Field Analytical and Site Characterization Technologies Summary of Applications’
  2. ‘Incremental sampling methodology for petroleum hydrocarbon contaminated soils: volume estimates and remediation strategies’ — Hyde K, Ma W, Obal T, Bradshaw K, Carlson T, Mamet S, Siciliano SD, Soil and Sediment Contamination: An International Journal, 2019.
  3. ‘Incremental Sampling Methodology’  https://www.itrcweb.org/ism-1/
  4. ‘Heterogeneous Site Characterization Through Incremental Sampling Methodology (ISM)’  https://www.testamericainc.com/media/1984/ism-monograph-5.pdf
  5. ‘Incremental Sampling Methodology: Applications for Background Screening Assessments’ — Pooler PS, Goodrum PE, Crumbling D, Stuchal LS, Roberts SM, Risk Analysis an International Journal, 2017.
  6. ‘Incremental Sampling Methodology: Technical and Regulatory Guidance’ https://www.itrcweb.org/ism-1/pdfs/ism-1_021512_final.pdf
  7. ‘Incremental Sampling Methodology [ISM]’ https://www.testamericainc.com/services-we-offer/services-we-offer-by-sample-matrix/soil/incremental-sampling-methodology-ism/
  8. ‘Accelerated Technology Laboratories Inc – Environmental’ https://atlab.com/industries/environmental
  9. ‘Environmental Express – Sample Collection’ http://www.envexp.com/products/11-Sample_Collection
  10. ‘Hanna Instruments – Environmental Monitoring Test Kit’ https://www.hannainstruments.co.uk/environmental-monitoring-test-kit.html
  11. ‘Merck – Services for Environmental Monitoring in Food & Beverage’ http://www.merckmillipore.com/GB/en/industrial-microbiology/microbiology-services/environmental-monitoring-food-beverage/IV.b.qB.rEQAAAFYdd1YiKoP,nav
  12. ‘Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)’ https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/volatile-organic-compounds-vocs
  13. ‘Environmental effects of volatile organic compounds on ozone layer’ — Ismail OMS, Abdel Hameed RS, Advances in Applied Science Research, 2013.
  14. ‘Optical methods for remote measurement of diffuse VOCs: their role in the quantification of annual refinery emissions’ https://www.concawe.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/rpt_08-6-2008-02481-01-e.pdf
  15. ‘Remote Detection of Volatile Organic Compounds by Passive Multispectral Infrared Imaging Measurements’ — Wabomba MJ, Sulub Y, Small GW, Applied Spectroscopy, 2007.
  16. ‘Simulated Radiance Profiles for Automating the Interpretation of Airborne Passive Multi-Spectral Infrared Images’ — Sulub Y, Small GW, Applied Spectroscopy, 2008.
  17. ‘Spectral systems’ https://www.spectral-systems.com/
  18. InfraRed Associates http://www.irassociates.com/


As the Earth’s population grows and the impact of human activities increases, pollutants will continue to build up in the environment with potentially dramatic and devastating effects. Environmental science is a complex and rapidly growing field that relies on accurate and reliable analytical instrumentation, techniques, and methodology to monitor the impacts of human activity. Demand for environmental monitoring techniques is increasing, and researchers are developing more advanced, reliable solutions for environmental analysis.

It is essential that new analytical techniques such as GCxGC and technologies like machine learning continue to be standardized and incorporated into environmental monitoring techniques to improve data quality and ensure safe practices. The standardization and adoption of new methods are only possible through the efforts of collaborative organizations such as the National Biomonitoring Network (NBN) and Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology (LIFT).

Advances in environmental analysis and the future demands of environmental monitoring will be outlined at Pittcon 2019, where a variety of symposia will feature experts in the field. In addition, the Pittcon exhibition will feature many companies providing the latest technologies for environmental sampling and monitoring.

The 2019 Pittcon Conference and Expo is a must-attend event for environmental scientists wishing to learn about the latest technology and trends in environmental analysis. The Pittcon Conference and Expo takes place March 17th-21st, 2019 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.