The Importance of Analytical Methodology
The importance of analytical methodology is evident when examining the results of 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 quality of the system. These are broad and poorly defined goals. In many cases, such studies are initiated with little thought to the ques- tions the data will be used to answer. This is not surprising since it can be hard to formulate questions in the absence of initial information about the system. 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 fed- eral government, the state governments of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. A 1989 review of some of the problems with this program highlights the difficulties common to many monitoring programs.
At the beginning of the Chesapeake Bay monitoring program, little attention was given to the proper choice of analytical methods, in large part because the intended uses of the monitoring data were not specified. The analytical methods initially chosen were those standard methods already approved by the EPA. In many cases these methods proved to be of little value for this monitoring project. Most of the EPA-approved methods were designed to detect pollutants at their legally mandated maximum allowed concentrations. The concentrations of these contaminants in natural waters, however, are often well below the detection limit of the EPA methods. For example, the EPA-approved standard method for phos- phate had a detection limit of 7.5 ppb. Since actual phosphate concentrations in Chesapeake Bay usually were below the EPA detection limit, the EPA method provided no useful information. On the other hand, a nonapproved variant of the EPA method commonly used in chemical oceanography had a detection limit of 0.06 ppb. In other cases, such as the elemental analysis for particulate forms of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, EPA-approved procedures provided poorer reproducibility than nonapproved methods.