Emerging Contaminants Analysis

Contaminants of emerging concern

Activities such as farming, commercial fishing, energy production, manufacturing, and transportation have increased the presence of contaminants in the environment. Regulatory bodies including the US EPA and the European Commission provide guidance to restrict, reduce, and eliminate the spread of contaminants and protect against human exposure. Despite continual efforts to regulate against environmental contamination, constant assessment is needed to identify and monitor novel, unknown, or contaminants of emerging concern for consideration in future regulation.


Sources of emerging contaminants

Emerging contaminants include synthetic or naturally occurring compounds or microorganisms that are suspected to have, or have demonstrated, adverse effects on human or environmental health. Emerging contaminants can include previously known, newly discovered, or unknown compounds. An example of the sources of emerging contaminants that can end up in the sewage of the municipalities is shown in the diagram below.

The need to identify these compounds or initiate advanced assessment of their presence in the environment can be due to one or more of the following:

  • Newly introduced or newly discovered compounds
  • Improved knowledge of health effects from exposure
  • Changes in occurrence data
  • Observed concentrations have elevated or are now detectable due to changing environmental conditions (e.g., drought, bioaccumulation) or advances in sensitivity of monitoring technologies
  • Feasibility of monitoring and or treatment technologies
  • Future exposure risks
Sources of emerging contaminants
  1. Agriculture Pesticide Runoff
    Crop treatments (pesticides and fertilizers)
  2. Residential Runoff & Effluent
    Human waste (PPCPs, hormones, steroids, antibiotics and endocrine disrupters), storm water contamination (PFCs and petroleum-based products), pharmaceutical disposal
  3. Farm & Livestock Runoff
    Veterinary drugs (hormones, steroids and antibiotics), animal waste (microbial pathogens)
  4. Hospital Waste Effluent
    Medical and dental treatment waste (PPCPs, hormones, steroids and antibiotics)
  5. Industrial Runoff & Effluent
    Manufacturing byproducts and process waste, building material contamination (BFRs, VOCs, PFCs, PCBs, petroleum-based products and nano particles)
  6. Energy Generation Effluent
    Process waste, contaminated fly ash and flue gas, toxic metals (vanadium), inorganic contaminants (bromides)
  7. Urban Runoff & Effluent
    Construction waste, building material contamination, pet waste (metabolic, vet drug excretion and microbial pathogens)
  1. Waste Water Treatment Plant
    PPCPs, hormones, steroids and antibiotics, disinfection byproducts, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), nanoparticles
  2. Waste Water Effluent
    PPCPs, hormones, steroids and antibiotics, disinfection byproducts, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), nanoparticles
  3. Septic tank affects the underground water table
    Untreated human waste from poorly contained septic leach fields (microbial pathogens, PPCPs and endocrine disrupters)
  4. Drinking Water Intake
    Disinfection byproducts, hormones, steroids and antibiotics, algal blooms (cyanotoxins), pesticides, nanoparticles, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus)
  5. Drinking Water Treatment Plant
    Disinfection byproducts, hormones, steroids and antibiotics, algal blooms (cyanotoxins), pesticides, nanoparticles, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus)

Environmental monitoring programs

Environmental monitoring programs are designed to identify potential contaminant candidates through various sources of information and provide processes for regulation inclusion. Examples of emerging contaminant compounds and compound classes of recent concern include the compounds listed in this table.

Examples of emerging contaminants
Class of compound Example compounds
Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) Antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers and cosmetic products
 Flame retardants and their impurities Polybromonated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and hexabromocyclododecanes (HBCDs)
Pesticides and biocides Perfluororoctane sulfonates (PFOS) and perfluoroctanoic acid (PFOA)
Steroids and endocrine disrupters Biogenic and synthetic hormones
Nanoparticles Gold, silver and other nanoparticles used in clothing and cosmetic industry
Disinfection byproducts Nitrosamines and disinfection byproducts containing iodine

Identification of unknown emerging contaminants

The proliferation of unknown compounds that can cause long term detrimental effects to human and environmental health has increased the need for early detection for confident identification of these contaminants. Advanced monitoring strategies should include methodologies and techniques that identify and quantitate known contaminants of concern as well as technology capable of revealing the unknown exogenous compounds present. The capabilities of the Orbitrap technology  provide unique solutions for this growing requirement. Specifically, the benefits of HRAM for unknown identification candidate reduction and subsequent confirmation are unmatched.


Monitoring known emerging contaminants

Academic researchers, regulatory bodies, and environmental interest groups work diligently to determine the impact of known contaminants that have been identified as "emerging". Through data collection and evaluation from various sources a determination for future regulation or monitoring requirements is made. A few specific compounds/compound classes of recent focus include: pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs), pesticides, steroids & endocrine disrupters, microcystins, disinfection byproducts (DBP), and nanoparticles.


US EPA validated methods for emerging contaminants

U.S. EPA validated methods for emerging contaminants

US EPA validated methods for emerging contaminants

US EPA draft methods for emerging contaminants analysis

  • EPA 1694 for analysis of 74 PPCPs
  • EPA 1698 for analysis of 27 steroids and hormones
  • EPA 1614A for brominated diphenyl ethers
  • EPA 1699 for pesticides

Techniques for analyzing emerging contaminants

Because most emerging contaminants are unknown and present at trace amounts in the environment, modern advanced technologies must be used for characterization, identification, and quantitation. Prior to regulatory determinations, development and validation of analytical methods for monitoring is required. Method development analysts can help choose a technique based on gas phase or liquid phase separation introduction; however, basic chromatography capabilities are limited and generally fail to meet requirements needed for emerging contaminant analysis.

Triple quadrupole mass spectrometers provide selective monitoring of known (targeted) compounds through Select Reaction Monitoring (SRM), demonstrating high sensitivity in complex environmental samples. However, their capabilities are limited when attempting to identify unknown (untargeted) emerging contaminants. For unknown identification, high-resolution accurate-mass (HRAM) mass spectrometry in Orbitrap technology can be used to clearly elucidate the structure of unknown compounds, greatly minimizing identification candidates. Overall, the ability to structurally discriminate unknowns through HRAM and the use of accurate mass as a highly selective monitoring mechanism provides a single solution for both known and unknown emerging contaminant analysis. The added benefit of the availability of Orbitrap technology in both liquid and gas phase analysis delivers an all encompassing solution for emerging contaminant analysis.


Technologies suitable for emerging contaminant analysis

Traditionally, nanoparticles have been analyzed either using transmission electron microscopy (TEM) or dynamic light scattering (DLS) technology. However, these methods do not provide the speed needed to support high-throughput analysis of nanoparticles in environmental samples. Single nanoparticle ICP-MS has gained momentum in the recent years for characterization analysis due to its high-throughput capability and the ability to characterize a wide range of nanoparticles sizes. Using the right software, nanoparticles can be characterized by ICP-MS with great speed, accuracy and precision.

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