trace metal analysis

Solutions for trace metal analysis

Environmental metals testing is very common for analysis of drinking water, wastewater, solid waste, soils and compost due to metal toxicity and regulations. With the advanced technologies today, in one elemental analysis run, multiple metals are often analyzed in multiple samples. However, different metals have unique properties in terms of sample preparation, ionization conditions, and spectral interferences. Therefore, tips and tricks are often the most valuable information that help with individual metals analysis.

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Comparison of ICP-OES and ICP-MS for Trace Elemental Analysis

Choosing between ICP-OES or ICP-MS depends on instrument performance, characteristics of the environmental sample, and regulatory requirements.

Analyzing Trace Elements with EPA Method 200.7

EPA 200.7 sets the method detection limit (MDL) for 31 different elements, along with preferred wavelengths and calibration and quality control standards.

Analyzing Trace Elements with EPA Method 200.8

This method is for analysis of 21 trace metal elements in drinking, surface, and ground waters, and can also be used for solid waste samples.

Analyzing Trace Elements with EPA Method 200.9

This regulatory method is for analyzing 16 dissolved and total recoverable elements in ground water, surface water, drinking water, storm runoff, industrial and domestic wastewater, as well as in sediments, soils, and sludge.

Analyzing Trace Elements with EPA Method 6010

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act created a framework for effective management of both hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste, including their reuse and recovery.

Elemental Speciation Analysis

Speciation is used to identify and quantify different chemical forms of a particular element in a solution or matrix.

Choosing the right instruments

Atomic spectrometry instruments are the most popular instruments used for trace metal analysis. Depending on the sample throughput, cost, sensitivity/detection limit, concentration range, matrices, and regulation requirements, different instruments can be chosen for different environmental applications. For instance, many metal elements can be analyzed easily and economically with ICP-OES but elements such as arsenic and lead are better analyzed by ICP-MS due to their low regulatory limit in drinking water.

For more information

  • Read our blog: Trace Elemental Analysis: Which Instrument is Best for You?

Sample preparation for metal analysis

Although metal analysis can be conducted directly from solid matrix through coupling of ICP-OES or ICP-MS with laser ablation instruments, the majority of the samples are analyzed in the liquid form. To make sure metal elements are totally dissolved in liquid samples, acid digestion  is often used. Depending on the matrix difference and analytes of interest, different acids or acid mixtures are used for the best digestion results and minimum interferences in downstream analysis. 

For water analysis, sample preparation can refer to EPA 200.7 and 200.8 methods; for soils, solid waste and sludges, EPA 3050B 3051A , and 3052  (total digestion) can be used for sample preparation. There are other quick methods for soil sample preparation, such as Mihlich-1 and Mihlich-3 methods that are not for total metal composition analysis in soils.

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Overcoming interferences

One of the biggest concerns using ICP-OES and ICP-MS is to overcome interferences. There are three types of interferences: physical, chemical and spectral.

Physical interferences occur when the physical properties of the sample are vastly different than the physical properties of the calibration standards. Examples of physical properties would include viscosity, density and surface tension. Physical interferences within the sample, injection and subsequently inside the plasma.

Chemical interferences occur when a sample matrix causes the standard to behave differently in the presence or absence of the matrix. Examples include ionization effects, molecular formation, and plasma loading.

Spectral interferences are the interferences generated either due to the similar region of light emission between the analyte atoms and the interfering atoms (ICP-OES) or the analyte ions with similar mass and charge ratio with the interfering ions (for ICP-MS).

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Improving metal analysis productivity

When analyzing thousands of samples in a large contract lab, operators are often frustrated with low productivity and efficiency. There are multiple ways to improve productivity:

  • Fast sample introduction
  • Automated sample dilution including prescriptive and intelligent dilution
  • Integrated software with "get ready" functionality and more importantly,  highly stable performance

For more information

View our on-demand webinars on:

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Tips and tricks: Environmental samples analysis on ICP-OES and ICP-MS

Instrument operation may look simple and straightforward, but there are many tips and tricks for sample analysis precision. Both instruments and sample preparation methods play important roles in getting high-precision results:

  • Sample preparation: precipitation
  • Sample preparation: gas production during the run
  • Sample preparation: plasma drift due to the sample matrix
  • Instruments: nebulizer type, gas flow rate, and peristaltic pump tubing
  • Instruments: extraction lens and mirror adjustment
  • Instruments: maintenance and use of skimmer cone inserts

For more information

  • Download technical note TN43208 to find solutions on improving matrix tolerance, which is important for ICP-MS for complex matrix samples.
  • eBook: Environmental analysis by ICP-MS

Related information


Elemental speciation using IC-ICP-MS

Not all the species of an element contribute equally to toxicity. Speciation is an important tool to separate and quantify toxic from nontoxic species. One of the most efficient techniques for speciation is to use IC-ICP-MS. The metal-free IC, high resolution ion exchange columns, simple online connectivity, together with high sensitivity ICP-MS and integrated software are a powerful combination for fast and efficient metal speciation.

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Nanoparticles analysis using ICP-MS

Interest in nanoparticle analysis has increased steadily in the last few years. Nanoparticles have a wide variety of uses in many industries. For this reason, they are proliferating in the environment and their potential negative effects on human health and aquatic systems are not yet well understood. Regulatory bodies are investigating the safety of some nanoparticles. The single particle ICP-MS measurement technique allows analysts to determine the presence of nanoparticles in different sample matrices, thanks to our state-of-the-art analytical technologies and software.  

For more information

  • Read our blog on nanoparticle analysis using ICP-MS

Mercury analysis in trade effluent

Mercury is a toxic element and is regulated in drinking water, wastewater, soil, and air. Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), the U.S. EPA regulates wastewater effluent discharge into surface water under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. Municipalities and industrial users must obtain NPDES permits to discharge their treated wastewater. Mercury is one of the most important heavy metal elements regulated under NPDES. The U.S. EPA approved multiple methods to measure the trace mercury concentration in effluent . EPA 200.8 is also an approved method that uses ICP-MS to determine the concentration of mercury.

For more information

  • Read the blog: Heavy Metals in Wastewater: Webinar on Wastewater Effluent Analysis

Related subtopics

Hydraulic Fracturing

The impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on the environment has been a hot topic of discussion for many years. Currently, there is no federal regulation on fracking water analysis although there are some basic analysis requirements from a few states. It is critical to know the types of metals present in fracking flowback and/or produced water. We provide comprehensive solutions for the analysis of metals, anions, and organic compounds in fracking water.

Water Regulations

The U.S. EPA requires specific analytical methods to be used for metals analysis in compliance with drinking water and solid waste regulations. For instance, for drinking water, the EPA methods 200.5 (Axial ICP-OES), 200.7 (ICP-OES), 200.8 (ICP-MS), and 200.9 (GFAA) are mandatorily used for different metals; for solid waste, SW846 methods 6010c (ICP-OES), 6020 (ICP-MS), and 6020A (ICP-MS) are used for metals analysis for groundwater, sludges, soil, and solid waste as a performance guidance. We have a regulatory guide and many applications for specific regulatory methods.

For metal analysis, other countries use different regulatory methods. For instance:

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