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3.7: The Importance of Analytical Methodology

The importance of analytical methodology is evident if we examine environmental monitoring programs. The purpose of a monitoring program is to determine the present status of an environmental system, and to assess long term trends in the system’s health. These are broad and poorly defined goals. In many cases, an environmental monitoring program begins before the essential questions are known. This is not surprising since it is difficult to formulate questions in the absence of any results. Without careful planning, however, a poor experimental design may result in data that has little value.

These concerns are illustrated by the Chesapeake Bay Monitoring Program. This research program, designed to study nutrients and toxic pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay, was initiated in 1984 as a cooperative venture between the federal government, the state governments of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. A 1989 review of the program highlights the problems common to many monitoring programs.11

At the beginning of the Chesapeake Bay monitoring program, little attention was given to selecting analytical methods, in large part because the eventual use of the monitoring data had yet to be specified. The analytical methods initially chosen were standard methods already approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In many cases these methods were not useful because they were designed to detect pollutants at their legally mandated maximum allowed concentrations. In unpolluted waters, however, the concentrations of these contaminants are often well below the detection limit of the EPA methods. For example, the detection limit for the EPA approved standard method for phosphate was 7.5 ppb. Since actual phosphate concentrations in Chesapeake Bay were below the EPA method’s detection limit, it provided no useful information. On the other hand, the detection limit for a non-approved variant of the EPA method, a method routinely used by chemical oceanographers, was 0.06 ppb. In other cases, such as the elemental analysis for particulate forms of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous, EPA approved procedures provided poorer reproducibility than nonapproved methods.