International Centre for Clean Water

Analysis – An Essential Component of Environmental Studies


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Living in times of Covid-19 has ensured that people around the globe understand the importance of ‘testing’. Just as treatment depends on confirming the presence of pathogen in a patient sample, ‘analysis’ or ‘testing’ of water quality is a key pre-requisite for myriad activities, be it treatment of wastewater, or identifying the most relevant technologies to purify water or even finding novel means of generating clean water.

Many of us are familiar with concepts such as hardness of water that not only makes it less potable, but also causes scaling in boilers and geysers. With increasing awareness about the impact of pollution, water is tested not only for parameters such as hardness and alkalinity, but also for the presence of heavy metals such as lead, mercury or chromium and metalloids like arsenic. While some users may want to ensure that their ‘water’ if free from microbiological contamination while some others may want to ensure that the source water for their application if free from radionuclides.

Yet this is not all. As water lends itself to varied applications, the scope of its testing is endless. The challenge in the area of environmental analysis lies not just in the large number of parameters that can be tested for, but the sheer range of concentrations of the different analytes in the samples. While some contaminants may be present at parts per billion level while others may be found at milligram levels. In addition, the water quality is impacted by multitude of factors which could potentially cause large variability in the data. To top it all, analysts are constantly challenged with emerging contaminants in the environmental samples.

Water testing involves techniques as diverse as use of portable sensors in the field, to doing simple titrations as well as using sophisticated instrumentation in the lab. While spectroscopic and spectrometric methods are routinely deployed to detect the presence of cations and anions, chromatographic methods are used for the analysis of organics such as pesticides, herbicides, emerging pollutants or even pharmaceutical residues in wastewater. The use of sophisticated instruments enables the detection of trace (ppm or ppb) levels of contaminants and increases sample throughput. The goal of analysis is to provide valid and high-quality data in a timely manner.

Test methods or protocols are thoroughly validated to ensure accuracy, precision, reproducibility and reliability. Analysts are trained in good laboratory practices (GLPs) to minimize human error. Thus, labs prepare themselves to support various activities such as development of new technologies, regular testing of customer samples and data generation for academic research. At ICCW we are in the process of establishing a world-class analytical facility to support our collaborators, customers and our in-house research. One of our objectives is to be able to test the various water quality parameters as per BIS protocols using QSPM. We will soon be ready to test for metal ion contamination in water using Atomic Absorption Spectrometry, pesticides and volatile organics using GCMS and other organics such as pharmaceutical residues using HPLC. These we believe are the first steps towards developing a strong testing capability in the organization.

This article is written by Dr Srividya Kailasam. She is a Principal Scientist at ICCW. She heads the analysis team and drives quality management, water quality testing and data analytics, with a focus on client’s research and strengthening excellent standards in ICCW laboratories.