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Using Mass Spectrometry to Identify and Quantify Contaminants in Water Samples

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Access to clean wholesome water is one of our basic human rights. Human engineering has designed incredible methods to collect, filter, purify, store and distribute water to billions of us worldwide, but does this mean that our water is completely safe to drink? Also, how can concentrations of water contaminants differ from source to source?

Water quality testing processes are in place to ensure the water from our household taps and off supermarket shelves are safe and free from pesticides or other contaminants, but how much do we know about the contents of our water, and what are the advantages of using mass spectrometry to identify and quantify contaminants in water samples?

To help answer some of these questions we’ve collected 5 infographics that shed some light on the state of our household water.

1) The cleanest and dirtiest water in America

We wanted to start with an infographic that puts water quality into perspective. Using data from 2011 the image demonstrates the varying quality of drinking water, even somewhere as developed as the United States of America.

There are four key considerations to this data:

  1. The population served by each utility company. Naturally, quality assurance will differ from business to business, and the demand on a utility company to serving a larger population will have an effect on their testing environment and available testing resources.

    Water companies throughout the world all have a duty of care to follow the guidance issued by the World Health Organization (2004 WHO Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality). In a typical year, a water company may perform over 2.5 million tests looking at different aspects of water quality, from how it tastes to how it looks. Water companies must test for bacteriological organisms such as E-coli, inorganic analysis which tests for metals or organic analysis which tests for pesticides, herbicides, PPCP’s and unknown pollutants in order to conform to their national regulations (eg. EPA in the USA, or DWI in the UK).
  2. The number of pollutants over the legal limit. This study took into consideration all pollutants and scored each water utility based on total the pollutants found in their water. Most pollutants are unregulated or have acceptable maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), meaning drinking water with a high concentration of contaminants is still acceptable to be distributed for human consumption.

    LC-MS/MS is the preferred method for this targeted analysis, due to the very low levels permitted for the MCL value.  Instruments such as the QTRAP® 6500+ LC-MS/MS system deliver unrivalled accuracy and sensitivity for the low levels detection required, water companies aim for limit of detection (LOD) of approximately 10% of the MCL which equates in most cases to 0.01µg/L.

    For more information the Environmental Protection Agency has a detailed list of contaminants and Maximum Contaminant` Levels.
  3. The number of pollutants over the recommended health limit. Whilst there are many unregulated contaminants in our water systems, our digestive systems are usually very good at managing traces of harmful substances. When the concentration level gets too high however it poses a risk to our health which is why in some places like Las Vegas, there are no pollutants in quantities over the legal limit, but 11 substances that have been flagged as a risk to health if consumed frequently.
  4. The pollutant of largest concern. Five pollutants have been listed showing the most concern throughout the data within the infographic but they fit into three types; disinfectant by-products such as haloacetic acids, additives in fuel, and most notoriously, arsenic – a poisonous element used in wood preservatives and pesticides!

    More information can be found at our dedicated disinfection by-products page.

2) ACTEW’s Drinking Water Quality Report


Crossing the Pacific, the next infographic moves away from an objective study of water quality to a summary of an Australian utility company who presented the numbers behind supplying 163,000 customers with water every day of the year.



It’s interesting to see the safeguarding steps taken to protect against contaminants (including pathogenic microorganisms) from a utilities perspective. 

According to the infographic there are 7 steps before customers receive the water:

  1. Detention and settling
  2. Selective abstraction
  3. Coagulation, flocculation and clarification
  4. Filtration
  5. Disinfection
  6. Disinfection residual
  7. Securing

The end result is to produce the best quality wholesome water using the current processing techniques.

The challenge is to ensure the utmost efficiency during the treatment process, thus, what comes out of the consumers tap is fit for consumption. The steps taken in the treatment and processing of raw water into drinking water must be monitored at each stage to make sure that they are working effectively. For example, a water treatment process may include an activated carbon filter plant which when in operation will remove pesticides from the raw water.

Routine monitoring using Mass Spec technology of the water upstream and downstream of this plant will determine its effectiveness at pesticide removal. ACTEW are now Icon Water and recently published their 2015 Water Quality Report detailing the chemical composition of drinking water in Canberra, Australia.

3) WATER: 21st Century Challenges

For the 6th World Water Forum in 2012, Suez Environment created this infographic to show the challenges we face as population rises, poverty increases and demand for clean drinking water grows. 

From this infographic, it is obvious that nations and their water providers have an even greater responsibility to produce a greater volume of wholesome water to meet the demand. Untargeted water screening on the X500R QTOF systems can be used to identify any potential contaminants from new water sources which may be adopted to satisfy the increasing volume requirements.

4) Why And How To Invest In Clean Water



Allianz has provided the numbers behind why investing in clean water is not only good for our health but also good financial sense for businesses and investors. 

Again, the points most pertinent to this post are the facts surrounding water pollution. With so many contaminants being discharged into coastal water, lakes and rivers how is the quality of our household water ever to achieve a consistent level of sanitation and safety throughout the world?

Whilst we’ve touched on it a couple of times, the efficiency of the water treatment process is paramount to the production of wholesome drinking water. There is a demand to test the water throughout the process, sample throughput and turnaround are key drivers in selecting an appropriate Mass Spectrometer, please read our technical note if you’d like to learn more about screening for unknown contaminants in untreated tap water.

5) Not a Drop to Drink – America’s Water Crisis

We finish with an infographic that puts into perspective the amount of water used by each of us on average. There’s not a lot to add to this one but it does give you a lot of facts about how integral water is to sanitation, agriculture, and general health. In my opinion, it provides a comparison of water consumption to carbon footprints and how much care needs to go into our water supplies and how fragile the ecosystem is despite our blue planet being so water based.


Download Our Water Testing Infokit >

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