The Role of Analysis in Environmental Science

Environmental science is a vast and increasingly important field. The design and implementation of policies to protect our health and environment rely on environmental analysis. In turn, environmental scientists require suitable analytical methods and techniques to monitor the effects of environmental contaminants.

Advances in Wastewater Treatment

Pittcon 2019 featured a range of relevant short courses, symposia, oral presentations, and exhibitors, and this article outlines some of the latest trends in environmental science that were covered there.

Humans rely on water to survive, but we also use water in virtually all our activities. The current water economy is based on a linear model where water is removed from natural sources, used, and discharged back into the environment, often without any treatment, resulting in pollution of our water resources. Consequently, as the global population grows, clean water could become a dwindling resource.1

Novel wastewater treatments could tackle problems including pollution and water scarcity. Extracting energy and nutrients from wastewater using innovative technologies could enable water to be reused and circulated in closed loops. Zonetta English, a research manager at MSD, gave a presentation at Pittcon 2019, entitled ‘Wastewater, A Renewable Energy Source’. She outlined the roles of emerging technologies that extract energy from wastewater in moving towards a circular water economy.2


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Monitoring Historical Pollutants

Monitoring environmental contaminants is a vital part of environmental science. It is important to monitor both current and historical pollutants, even those that are now banned. Michelle Misselwitz of Chemistry Matters Inc. highlighted the need to monitor pollutants of the past in her presentation ‘Analytical Chemistry Lessons from History: The Discovery of PCBs and the Future of Analytical Methods for Environmental Contaminants.’3

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are persistent organic pollutants that have been banned for decades in most countries. However, PCBs continue to threaten marine species including killer whales. Monitoring PCBs and identifying their sources can be challenging. Traditional techniques such as gas chromatography struggle to provide sufficient resolution to identify PCBs conclusively. In her presentation, Michelle outlined how 2-dimensional gas chromatography can provide improved analysis and identify 180 PCBs in environmental samples.4,5

Quantifying Exposure with Human Biomonitoring

Human biomonitoring, which involves measuring the concentrations of environmental contaminants, metabolites, and biomarkers in biological samples such as hair, urine, and blood, is the premier technique for quantifying human exposure to chemicals. Julianne Nassif of the Association of Public Health Laboratories gave a presentation entitled ‘Human Biomonitoring - The Link Between Environmental Exposures and Health Effects,’ where he discussed how the collaborative efforts of National Biomonitoring Network are improving biomonitoring throughout the USA.6,7

Human biomonitoring depends on advanced analytical methods that can detect trace compounds in complex biological samples. As a result, studies involving human biomonitoring can be challenged by the lower detection limits of analytical instrumentation and methods. Robert J Gilmore of Keramida Inc addressed these challenges in his presentation ‘The Application and Limitations of Detection Limits in Exposure and Risk Assessment.8

Developments in Field Testing

Field testing is an essential part of environmental science, enabling the detection and monitoring of environmental contaminants. Sampling and analysis techniques are constantly being improved and standardized to provide better data and more reliable results. One technique that is increasing in popularity is incremental sampling, which uses standardized protocols to obtain representative samples for more reliable and reproducible analyses. At Pittcon 2019, Mark Bruce of TestAmerica Laboratories gave a presentation entitled ‘Environmental Incremental Sampling Methodology Update.9,10

New analytical techniques are also being applied to field testing. At Pittcon 2019, Zizi Chen gave an update on some of the University of Iowa’s research into using computational algorithms and remote spectroscopy to detect volatile organic compounds. The presentation, entitled ‘Simulated Radiance Profiles for the Automated Detection of Volatile Organic Compounds from Passive Infrared Remote Sensing Data’ outlined the groups attempts to develop detection algorithms using simulated training datasets, removing the need to acquire training datasets in the field.11


Environmental science is a huge field that relies on the identification, quantification, and tracking of environmental contaminants. Assessing, standardizing, and incorporating new analytical methods and techniques into environmental analysis is critical for improving data quality, and providing reliable evidence for regulators and policymakers. The 2019 Pittcon Conference and its environmental science symposia featured contributions from environmental analysis experts, making it a fantastic opportunity to learn about the latest trends in  environmental science.

Environmental science requires a range of analytical techniques including mass spectrometry, spectroscopy, and chromatography. The Pittcon 2019 Expo will feature all the leading technology suppliers and is the ideal place to find companies providing the latest solutions for environmental analysis.

About Pittcon


Pittcon® is a registered trademark of The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, a Pennsylvania non-profit organization. Co-sponsored by the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh, Pittcon is the premier annual conference and exposition on laboratory science.

Proceeds from Pittcon fund science education and outreach at all levels, kindergarten through adult. Pittcon donates more than a million dollars a year to provide financial and administrative support for various science outreach activities including science equipment grants, research grants, scholarships and internships for students, awards to teachers and professors, and grants to public science centers, libraries and museums.

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References and further reading

  1. Managing water in a changing world’ — Cassardo C, Jones JAA, Water, 2011.
  2. ‘Turning Wastewater into Renewable Energy’
  3. ‘Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)’
  5. ‘Improved separation of the 209 PCBs using GCxGC-TOFMS’ — Focant J, Sjödin A, Patterson D, Organohalogen Comnpounds, 2004.
  6. ‘How Two-Dimensional Gas Chromatography (GCxGC) Increases Routine Laboratory Performance’
  8. Human Biomonitoring for Environmental Chemicals’ — National Research Council, The National Academies Press, 2006.
  9. ‘National Biomonitoring Network’
  11. ‘Effects of exposure measurement error when an exposure variable is constrained by a lower limit.’ — Richardson DB, Ciampi A, American Journal of Epidemiology, 2003.
  12. ‘Incremental Sampling Methodology: Technical and Regulatory Guidance’
  13. ‘Incremental Sampling Methodology’
  15. ‘Remote Detection of Volatile Organic Compounds by Passive Multispectral Infrared Imaging Measurements’ — Wabomba MJ, Sulub Y, Small GW, Applied Spectroscopy, 2007.


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