analysis of heavy trace metalsAnalyzing the metals in our environmental waters is important because many heavy metals pose a serious threat to our health. Among the WHO’s 10 chemicals of major Public Health concern, four are metal or metalloid: arsenic (metalloid), cadmium, lead, and mercury. Because of their toxicity, they are also listed in the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. You may be familiar with them, but do you know the following facts?

Facts on Heavy Metals

  • All four metalloid or metals threaten health quality, especially children. These toxic substances have been reported to be associated with autism (link to research study) and are regulated in drinking water, pharmaceuticals, and toys (links to regulatory websites.)
  • Inorganic arsenic is very toxic, causing severe problems, while organic arsenic is excreted from the body quickly without harm.
  • Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic causes skin pigmentation change and lesions and eventually can lead to cancer.
  • Cadmium targets mainly the kidneys to cause renal diseases and stays in our body with a half-life of 10 to 35 years.
  • Smoking is a major source of cadmium intake.
  • Lead has multiple targets in our body and is deposited mainly in bones; lead testing can be done using blood, (downloadable PDF of analytical method), teeth, and bones.
  • Children absorb four to five times as much lead as adults; children who ingest lead may suffer from neural diseases and anemia.
  • Both elemental mercury and methyl mercury are toxic; coal-fired power plants and methylmercury from fish and shellfish are two important sources of mercury.
  • Mercury stays in the air for one year but can be stable in ocean sediments for millions of years.

Monitoring Heavy Trace Metals: Contaminant Regulatory Standard and Analytical Methods

How do we test trace metals in our environment? As routine practice, atomic spectrometry technologies, including atomic absorption spectrometry (AA), inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometry (ICP-OES), and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), are often used because they provide the sensitivity various global regulations require.

For trace metals in drinking water, the U.S. EPA approved the following methods:

Arsenic (Maximum Contaminant Limit, MCL=10 ppb):

  • EPA Method 200.5 (ICP-OES axial view)
  • EPA Method 200.8 (ICP-MS)
  • EPA Method 200.9 (Graphite Furnace Atomic Absorption, GFAA)

Cadmium (MCL=5 ppb):

  • EPA Method 200.5
  • EPA Method 200.7 (ICP-OES)
  • EPA Method 200.8
  • EPA Method 200.9

Lead (action level, AL=15 ppb):

  • EPA Method 200.5
  • EPA Method 200.8
  • EPA Method 200.9

Mercury (MCL=2 ppb):

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  •  (cold vapor atomic absorption)
  • EPA Method 200.8

As you can see, the ICP-OES technique using either the 200.5 or the 200.7 method is not approved for mercury analysis. Although mercury is listed in the analytes table in EPA Method 200.7 (downloadable PDF), mercury has a low MCL that is close to the detection limit for ICP-OES. In addition, sample preparation using above methods may evaporate mercury and lead to underestimate of the detection results. Because mercury has highly volatile, EPA Method 245.1 (downloadable PDF) using cold vapor absorption technique (downloadable application note for mercury analysis) is a preferred choice.

In addition, EPA Method 200.7 is approved for use only with cadmium testing when the preconcentration method may have to be used to get the lower detection limit to meet the MCL requirement. The question then becomes, why Method 200.5 is approved for these metals (except for mercury) but not Method 200.7? When the currently recommended version 4.4 of Method 200.7 was developed in 1994, the plasma axial view technology of ICP-OES had not been developed. When Method 200.5 was developed in 2003, the axial view technology was applied to detect trace metals with low MCL, such as arsenic, lead, and cadmium.

With addition of the axial view, Method 200.7 can also be used to analyze water samples based on the EPA’s Guidelines Establishing Test Procedures for the Analysis of Pollutants Under the Clean Water Act (link to the document, page 25). However, because the low MCL of these metals is close to the detection limit of ICP-OES, using Method 200.8 (downloadable PDF) is preferred. In Method 200.8, Collision Cell Technology (CCT) applied to ICP-MS has commonly been used to remove polyatomic interferences and lower the detection limit for different type of waters. But CCT has not been approved for drinking water analysis.

As mentioned above, for arsenic and mercury, only certain species are toxic (inorganic arsenic, elemental mercury, and methylmercury). Speciation analysis should be done to make sure we know if the toxic species are present in our water or food. One effective speciation technique is to couple ion chromatography with ICP-MS.

Resources Supporting Methods for Heavy Metal Analysis

We have several EPA-method specific applications that can be used for the analysis of heavy metals in water:

You might also want to download this PDF that provides a guide for metal testing methods for drinking water and application notes: Solutions for U.S. EPA Drinking Water Contaminant Analysis.

If you have questions on heavy metal analysis, do enter them in the Comments box below. I look forward to hearing from you.