Using mass spectrometry to identify and quantify contaminants in water samples

Oct 19, 2020 | Blogs, Environmental / Industrial, Food / Beverage | 0 comments

Access to clean wholesome water is a basic human right. Humans have engineered incredible methods to collect, filter, purify, store and distribute water to billions of people worldwide, but does this mean that our water is completely safe to drink? Also, how do concentrations of water contaminants differ from source to source?

Water quality testing aims to ensure the water from our household taps and supermarket shelves is safe and free from pesticides and 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 the US

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 at different water utilities, even somewhere as developed as the US.

The data behind this infographic took into account 4 key considerations:

  • The population served by each utility company: Naturally, quality assurance will differ from business to business, and the demand placed on a utility company that is serving a larger population will affect its testing environment and available testing resources.

    Water companies throughout the world have a duty to follow the guidance issued by the World Health Organization (see the 2004 WHO Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality). In a typical year, a water company performs various tests to look at different aspects of water quality, from how it tastes to how it looks. To comply with regulations from organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US and the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) in the UK, water companies must test for bacteriological organisms (e.g., E. coli), as well as for metals using inorganic analysis and for pesticides, herbicides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) and unknown pollutants using organic analysis.
  • The number of pollutants over the legal limit: The study that gathered the data for the infographic took into consideration all pollutants, and it scored each water utility based on the total amount of pollutants found in its water. Most pollutants are unregulated or have acceptable maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), which means that the concentration of contaminants in the drinking water is still acceptable 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 from SCIEX deliver the accuracy and sensitivity needed for the low-level detection that is required: water companies aim for a limit of detection (LOD) that is approximately 10% of the MCL, which in most cases equates to 0.01 µg/L.

    For more information, see the EPA’s detailed list of contaminants and maximum contaminant levels.
  • The number of pollutants over the recommended health limit: While 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. This is why in some places, such as Las Vegas, there are no pollutants in quantities over the legal limit, but there are 11 substances that have been flagged as a risk to health if consumed frequently.
  • The pollutants of largest concern: The infographic lists 5 pollutants that are most concerning. They fit into three types: disinfectant by-products, such as haloacetic acids (HAA); additives in fuel; and most notoriously, arsenic—a poisonous element used in wood preservatives and pesticides.

    For more information, visit the SCIEX disinfection by-products page.

2. ACTEW Water’s drinking water quality report

Crossing the Pacific, the next infographic moves away from an objective study of water quality at various utilities to a summary of an Australian utility company, ACTEW Water (now known as Icon Water) that 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, 7 steps occur 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 goal of the current processing techniques at the time is to produce the best-quality, most wholesome water.

The challenge is ensuring the utmost efficiency during the treatment process and that what comes out of the consumer’s 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 that, when in operation, will remove pesticides from the raw water.

Routine monitoring of the water upstream and downstream of this plant, using mass spectrometry technology, will determine the effectiveness of the pesticide removal process. Now known as Icon Water, the utility recently published its 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 of a rising population, increasing poverty and growing demand for clean drinking water.

Based on this infographic, it is clear that nations and their water providers have an enormous responsibility to produce the amount of wholesome water required to meet demand. To help satisfy the increasing volume requirements for clean water, an untargeted water screening approach using the X500R QTOF System from SCIEX can be used to identify any potential contaminants in new water sources.

4. Why and how to invest in clean water

In this infographic, Allianz provides the numbers behind why investing in clean water not only is good for our health but also makes good financial sense for businesses and investors. 

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

While we’ve touched on it a couple of times, an efficient water treatment process is paramount to the production of wholesome drinking water, and this is an area where a mass spectrometer can play a critical role. Sample throughput and turnaround are key drivers in the selection of an appropriate mass spectrometer for water testing. This technical note about screening for unknown contaminants in untreated tap water provides more information.

5. Not a drop to drink: America’s water crisis

We conclude 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 provide a lot of facts about how integral water is to sanitation, agriculture and general health. In my opinion, it shows a comparison of water consumption and carbon footprints, and it demonstrates how much care our water supplies require and how fragile the ecosystem is despite the water-based nature of our planet.

Learn more about SCIEX drinking water solutions, visit our webpage.

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Craig has worked in the mass spectrometry industry for over 20 years and has been with SCIEX since 2016. As a senior product application specialist, he works with customers to understand their targeted screening workflows and provide solutions using high-resolution accurate mass spectrometry technologies.