Earlier we defined a protocol as a set of stringent written guidelines specifying an exact procedure that must be followed before an agency will accept the results of an analysis. In addition to the considerations taken into account when designing a procedure, a protocol also contains explicit instructions regarding internal and external quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) procedures.10 The goal of internal QA/QC is to ensure that a laboratory’s work is both accurate and precise. External QA/QC is a process in which an external agency certifies a laboratory.
As an example, let’s outline a portion of the Environmental Protection Agency’s protocol for determining trace metals in water by graphite furnace atomic absorption spectroscopy as part of its Contract Laboratory Program (CLP). The CLP protocol (see Figure 3.7) calls for an initial calibration using a method blank and three standards, one of which is at the detection limit. The resulting calibration curve is verified by analyzing initial calibration verification (ICV) and initial calibration blank (ICB) samples. The lab’s result for the ICV sample must fall within ±10% of its expected concentration. If the result is outside this limit the analysis is stopped, and the problem identified and corrected before continuing.
After a successful analysis of the ICV and ICB samples, the lab reverifies the calibration by analyzing a continuing calibration verification (CCV) sample and a continuing calibration blank (CCB). Results for the CCV also must be within ±10% of its expected concentration. Again, if the lab’s result for the CCV is outside the established limits, the analysis is stopped, the problem identified and corrected, and the system recalibrated as described above. Additional CCV and the CCB samples are analyzed before the first sample and after the last sample, and between every set of ten samples. If the result for any CCV or CCB sample is unacceptable, the results for the last set of samples are discarded, the system is recalibrated, and the samples reanalyzed. By following this protocol, every result is bound by successful checks on the calibration. Although not shown in Figure 3.7, the protocol also contains instructions for analyzing duplicate or split samples, and for using of spike tests to verify accuracy.
Figure 3.7 Schematic diagram showing a portion of the EPA’s protocol for determining trace metals in water using graphite furnace atomic absorption spectrometry. The abbreviations are ICV: initial calibration verification; ICB: initial calibration blank; CCV: continuing calibration verification; CCB: continuing calibration blank.