The only certainty in a changing environmental landscape
Despite a 38-fold increase in environmental laws put in place around the world since 1972, the future of our planet is under the spotlight like never before. Mitigating climate change has arrived as our world’s foremost challenge, and with it comes a myriad of research and efforts around reducing anthropogenic pollution. The aim is to safeguard wildlife and biodiversity, protect our food and water supply from persistent and harmful contaminants, and promote sustainability in the global ecosystem and human communities.
Regulations play a significant role. Not only do they specify legal terms of tolerance concerning the chemicals entering our environment, but they also define the tolerance levels of a chemical or substance. Regulations seek to protect systems and non-target organisms from unintended adverse effects. And with environmental regulation comes environmental analysis. It’s a critical piece when it comes to enforcing environmental laws.
The challenge right now is that the regulations around the world are changing and struggling to keep up with some of the threats. This is particularly the case for the list of emerging contaminants, which is continuously expanding due to agrochemical and industrial developments. Most jurisdictions around the world are reviewing their stance on these chemicals to ensure regulations adequately protect both our environment and the population.
But where does that leave environmental testing labs? Let’s take a look at some of the key trends impacting the regulatory and analytical landscape.
The PFAS crisis hits global proportions
One of the most high-profile issues is a class of compounds is called per- or poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). They have received significant public and media attention due to their toxicity and extreme persistence, and also because of their documented presence in many natural water systems globally. This has had a direct impact on our aquatic environment, drinking water and agriculture. A few things to consider with regards to the scale of the problem:
- According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a total of 4730 compounds classified as PFAS are currently distributed on the global market. This includes several new groups of PFAS that fulfill the common definition of PFAS (meaning they contain at least one perfluoroalkyl molecule) but have not yet been commonly regarded as PFAS.
- Global annual PFAS emissions have steadily increased with a geographical shift away from North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan towards the Middle East, Asia, and China. Regulation and risk reduction measures vary considerably around the world, with most PFAS remaining unregulated in emerging economies.
- In Europe, PFAS costs more than €50 billion ($59-$95 billion) a year in health problems, and Australia currently faces its biggest class-action lawsuit in the country’s history as a result of PFAS contamination from firefighting foams. In the United States, PFAS contamination is the most pressing drinking water quality issue.
Since the EPA launched its PFAS Action Plan, there has been rapid development of regulations. It represents the broadest regulatory changes right now, and at last count, there were at least 10 proposed bills in Congress to address PFAS. They include proposals to formally include PFAS within the statutory definitions of hazardous waste, setting PFAS standards in drinking water (maximum contaminant levels) and including PFAS in the toxic release inventory. However, there has been criticism around delayed action, and more than eight states have enacted their own legislation to address PFAS issues.
Even Hollywood has joined the fight to tackle PFAS with the release of the movie Dark Waters. Looking forward, PFAS are expected to remain prominent in environmental research and analysis. Interestingly, this paper states that mobility, substitution, diversity, and unknown “dark matter” will shape PFAS research in the next decade.
Beyond PFAS and on to other emerging environmental contaminants
Other emerging environmental contaminants that warrant attention include pharmaceuticals, personal care products, illicit drugs, hormones, endocrine disruptors, disinfection by-products and algal toxins. The list goes on. Wastewater effluents are a significant source of these chemicals entering our environment due to their everyday use in our households.
The use of pesticides can also impact soil and surface water quality. Agricultural chemicals have a much broader environmental impact and are the subject of a great deal of controversy around the world. An example is glyphosate. While Vietnam has banned all herbicides containing glyphosate, countries like Germany and France are slowly phasing out the chemical.
Looking ahead to 2020 and beyond, what will happen?
What is increasingly evident is that environmental scientists need to address the emerging chemicals entering the environment and react quickly to an uncertain and changing regulatory landscape.
Research laboratories need to investigate the risks these chemicals pose to the surrounding environment and the wider population. They require the most sensitive and modern instrumentation to identify and quantify new chemicals and compounds.
There is hope that the regulators will quickly conclude their reviews and set out clear guidelines. This will enable industrial and contract labs to test environmental samples to ensure restricted compounds are below regulation imposed levels.
Finding certainty among the chaos of change
Faced with constant change, you need to be able to count on an analytical method that can detect contaminant chemicals and identify secondary molecules such as the metabolites.
Recent techniques and methods have been developed for identifying and characterizing new chemicals in environmental samples. There is also a need for analytical methods that can cost-effectively screen for a wide range of suspected and non-targeted compounds in complex environmental matrices within a single analytical run. In the last few years, this has resulted in a shift in the analytical methods used.
Numerous emerging contaminantssuch as PFAS are continuously used and discharged into the environment.1,2,3,4 So, this leaves us with the question— is there an analytical method that can comprehensively detect new and emerging contaminants and their precursors?
Good question! Technological advancements in high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) have improved HRMS performance to identify the currently unknown PFAS using non-targeted analysis.5,6,7 Check out this webinar by Professor Christopher Higgins from the Colorado School of Mines, where he demonstrates how he and his team have used LC-HRMS to detect PFAS.
What if I’m looking at other emerging contaminants?
Both HRMS and LC-MS/MS are widely accepted techniques.8, 9 One reason is the ability of these approaches to determine the molecular formulas of the analytes from accurate mass measurements. The techniques also enable you to process data for compounds retrospectively. If you’re curious about what SCIEX instruments can do for your PFAS testing, you can download this info kit to learn more.
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- Nakayama, S. F., Yoshikane, M., Onoda, Y., Nishihama, Y., Iwai-Shimada, M., Takagi, M., … Isobe, T. (2019). Worldwide trends in tracing poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment. TrAC Trends in Analytical Chemistry, 121, 115410. doi: 10.1016/j.trac.2019.02.011
- Xiao, F. (2017). Emerging poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances in the aquatic environment: A review of current literature. Water Research, 124, 482–495. doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2017.07.024
- Pan, Y., Zhang, H., Cui, Q., Sheng, N., Yeung, L. W. Y., Sun, Y., … Dai, J. (2018). Worldwide Distribution of Novel Perfluoroether Carboxylic and Sulfonic Acids in Surface Water. Environmental Science & Technology, 52(14), 7621–7629. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.8b00829
- Mathieu, C., & McCall, M. (2017, September). Survey of Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) in Rivers and Lakes. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/documents/1703021.pdf.
- Krauss, M., Singer, H., & Hollender, J. (2010). LC–high resolution MS in environmental analysis: from target screening to the identification of unknowns. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, 397(3), 943–951. doi: 10.1007/s00216-010-3608-9
- Lorenzo, M., Campo, J., & Picó, Y. (2018). Analytical challenges to determine emerging persistent organic pollutants in aquatic ecosystems. TrAC Trends in Analytical Chemistry, 103, 137–155. doi: 10.1016/j.trac.2018.04.003
- Ruan, T., & Jiang, G. (2017). Analytical methodology for identification of novel per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the environment. TrAC Trends in Analytical Chemistry, 95, 122–131. doi: 10.1016/j.trac.2017.07.024
- Pérez-Parada, A., Gómez-Ramos, M. D. M., Bueno, M. J. M., Uclés, S., Uclés, A., & Fernández-Alba, A. R. (2011). Analytical improvements of hybrid LC-MS/MS techniques for the efficient evaluation of emerging contaminants in river waters: a case study of the Henares River (Madrid, Spain). Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 19(2), 467–481. doi: 10.1007/s11356-011-0585-2
- J. Manuel Galindo-Miranda, Cecilia Guízar-González, Elías J. Becerril-Bravo, Gabriela Moeller-Chávez, Elizabeth León-Becerril, Ramiro Vallejo-Rodríguez; Occurrence of emerging contaminants in environmental surface waters and their analytical methodology – a review. Water Supply 1 November 2019; 19 (7): 1871–1884. doi: https://doi.org/10.2166/ws.2019.087