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USGS Methods to Identify Emerging Contaminants

USGS provides research on identifying contaminants to prevent and manage pollution

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USGS Toxics Program scientists have developed eight new methods that provide improved measurement capability for many tens of contaminants, including methyl mercury, surfactants, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals.

Current Chemical Analytical Capabilities are applicable to Water, Sediment and Tissue Analysis

The new laboratory method developed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) measures trace levels of 22 human-health pharmaceuticals in surface and ground water.

The new method is a part of the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program’s effort to document the sources, occurrence, fate, transport, and ecological-health effects of selected human and animal-health pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants in the environment.

Public Health and Community Impact of Emerging Contaminants

The powerful capabilities provided by this new method, developed as an integral component of the Emerging Contaminants in the Environment Investigation, enable scientists to delve deeper into the detailed scientific questions regarding the sources, fate, and effects of emerging contaminants in our environment. The answers to these questions are being sought more each day by public-health and other decision makers in private as well as public sectors of our society as emerging contaminant issues continue to arise.

High-performance liquid chromatography–electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (HPLC–ESI-MS

The new analysis method uses an analytical procedure that combines solid-phase extraction with high-performance liquid chromatography–electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (HPLC–ESI-MS). The average detection limit for this method is 0.022 micrograms per liter (µg/L), sufficient for expected ambient concentrations in the environment. The method performs well for the majority of the 22 pharmaceuticals quantified, with recoveries greater than 60 percent for 12 pharmaceuticals.

Aquatic Environment Detection

Development of capabilities to detect low concentrations in aquatic environments is important for several reasons:

1) many compounds are used in relatively small quantities and therefore concentrations in the environment are low;

2) many degrade or are transformed to other compounds, thereby reducing environmental concentrations;

3) compounds can partition among various environmental media such as soil or sediment particles;

4) the complex mix of natural and manufactured chemicals found in environmental waters can mask the detection of contaminants of concern, and

5) some classes of contaminants may have ecological health effects at low levels.

These new methods provide crucial tools that are enabling scientists to determine:

  • The levels and mixtures of compounds that occur in the environment,
  • The mechanisms by which these compounds enter the environment (source pathways), and
  • The processes that affect the transport, persistence, and fate of the compounds in the environment.


    Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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