SEGH Articles

How useful are on-site measurements in environmental geochemistry?

12 August 2012
How reliable are on-site measurements? Can sound decisions be made using them, or should we stick to measurements made in the remote lab?

 

There are an increasing number of portable instruments (and test kits) that environmental geochemists can take into the field to get rapid measurements of contaminant concentration. They can measure a range of different inorganic and organic contaminants in many different media, such as soils, wastes, waters and gases – and give results in a few minutes. This seems a very attractive way to enable rapid decisions on whether contaminants might pose a threat to human health, or just whether and where more measurements need to be taken. It seems to be a much better option than waiting weeks to get samples analysed in a remote lab. The key issue is how reliable are these on-site measurements? Can sound decisions be made using them, or should we stick to measurements made in the remote lab?

 

Recent research at University of Sussex has been investigating this issue, by focusing particularly
on the uncertainty in both the on-site and lab-based measurements. The key concept here is that all measurements are wrong to some extent, but the value of the uncertainty tells us the range of concentration within which the true value lies. We applied a range of different on-site techniques to a several different contaminated sites, and compared the results with those from remote labs. There are two main ways of applying on-site analytical techniques in the field. The ‘in situ’ approach leaves the sample material in its original position; for example a portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometer (PXRF – Fig.1) can be placed directly onto an area of bare soil, or a pH electrode placed in a river. The second more common ‘on-site’ approach, is to remove a sample from its position (e.g. in the top soil), prepare it in some way (e.g. mix a soil as far as possible within a polythene bag), and analyse this prepared sample near the original location, or in a local field-lab.

 

 

The results for the in situ approach, in an example for As determined by PXRF, showed that the areas of land identified as being contaminated by As above a threshold concentration value, were very similar to those found using the lab measurement. Somewhat unexpectedly, the uncertainty of both the in situ and lab measurements were also similar[1]. The was because the main source of uncertainty was shown to be the sampling, rather than the analytical process, and therefore caused by the small-scale heterogeneity of the As distribution in the soil. The optimal level of uncertainty was calculated, at a level that minimizes the overall potential financial loss. This cost arises from both the taking of the measurements, and from decision errors in the land classification caused by the uncertainty. Neither  the lab or the in situ measurements had this optimal level of uncertainty, which is required to achieve full fitness-for-purpose. Both type of measurement would therefore benefit from the taking of composite samples or measurements. This is achieved by taking several sub-samples across each small area, rather than just one sample, to reduce the effect of the small-scale heterogeneity to an acceptable level. The bias the in situ measurements was estimated as -43%, by comparison against the lab measurements across all locations. This was partially due to the moisture and pore spaces included in the soils measured in situ. Once quantified, this bias can be corrected for, to improve the agreement. Using this approach, it was argued that in situ measurements can be not only sufficiently reliable, but they can also be more fit than lab measurements for some purposes, such as hot spot delineation.

For another case study of on-site measurements, with local removal of the samples from two sites, the sampling process again dominated the uncertainty values[2]. For the organic contaminant total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH), the uncertainty of the lab analysis (U = 54%) was too high to make an effective comparison of the on-site results from the test kit (U = 30%) against them. This study also indentified that the different definitions of terms, like TPH including aromatic but not aliphatic compounds, is another factor limiting the interpretation using such comparisons.

 

Overall the conclusion was that on-site (including in situ) measurements can have distinct advantages over lab-based measurements, especially in terms of their rapidity and lower overall cost. The consideration of the uncertainty of both types of measurements revealed that both can be very high (e.g. ~50 - 100%), but the reliable interpretation of both types of measurements requires the value of the uncertainty to be estimated for that application. Knowing this information, on-site measurements can be as useful to environmental geochemists as those made in the lab.



Professor Mike Ramsey, University of Sussex. 

 

 

 

 

[1] Ramsey M.H. and Boon K.A. (2012) Can in situ geochemical measurements be more fit-for-purpose than those made ex situ? Applied Geochemistry 27, 969-976 . http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.apgeochem.2011.05.022

 

[2] Boon K.A. and Ramsey M.H. (2012) Judging the fitness of on-site measurements by their uncertainty, including the contribution from sampling. Science of the Total Environment  419, 196–207 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2011.12.001

 

Keep up to date

Submit Content

Members can keep in touch with their colleagues through short news and events articles of interest to the SEGH community.

Science in the News

Latest on-line papers from the SEGH journal: Environmental Geochemistry and Health

  • Agro-ecological suitability assessment of Chinese Medicinal Yam under future climate change 2019-10-15

    Abstract

    Chinese Medicinal Yam (CMY) has been prescribed as medicinal food for thousand years in China by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners. Its medical benefits include nourishing the stomach and spleen to improve digestion, replenishing lung and kidney, etc., according to the TCM literature. As living standard rises and public health awareness improves in recent years, the potential medicinal benefits of CMY have attracted increasing attention in China. It has been found that the observed climate change in last several decades, together with the change in economic structure, has driven significant shift in the pattern of the traditional CMY planting areas. To identify suitable planting area for CMY in the near future is critical for ensuring the quality and supply quantity of CMY, guiding the layout of CMY industry, and safeguarding the sustainable development of CMY resources for public health. In this study, we first collect 30-year records of CMY varieties and their corresponding phenology and agro-meteorological observations. We then consolidate these data and use them to enrich and update the eco-physiological parameters of CMY in the agro-ecological zone (AEZ) model. The updated CMY varieties and AEZ model are validated using the historical planting area and production under observed climate conditions. After the successful validation, we use the updated AEZ model to simulate the potential yield of CMY and identify the suitable planting regions under future climate projections in China. This study shows that regions with high ecological similarity to the genuine and core producing areas of CMY mainly distribute in eastern Henan, southeastern Hebei, and western Shandong. The climate suitability of these areas will be improved due to global warming in the next 50 years, and therefore, they will continue to be the most suitable CMY planting regions.

  • Application of stable isotopes and dissolved ions for monitoring landfill leachate contamination 2019-10-15

    Abstract

    We evaluated groundwater contamination by landfill leachate at a municipal landfill and characterized isotopic and hydrogeochemical evidence of the degradation and natural attenuation of buried organic matter at the study site. Dissolved ion content was generally much higher in the leachate than in the surrounding groundwater. The leachate was characterized by highly elevated bicarbonate and ammonium levels and a lack of nitrate and sulfate, indicating generation under anoxic conditions. Leachate δD and δ13CDIC values were much higher than those of the surrounding groundwater; some groundwater samples near the landfill showed a significant contamination by the leachate plume. Hydrochemical characteristics of the groundwater suggest that aquifer geology in the study area plays a key role in controlling the natural attenuation of leachate plumes in this oxygen-limited environment.

  • Lead transfer into the vegetation layer growing naturally in a Pb-contaminated site 2019-10-10

    Abstract

    The lead was one of the main elements in the glazes used to colour ceramic tiles. Due to its presence, ceramic sludge has been a source of environmental pollution since this dangerous waste has been often spread into the soil without any measures of pollution control. These contaminated sites are often located close to industrial sites in the peri-urban areas, thus representing a considerable hazard to the human and ecosystem health. In this study, we investigated the lead transfer into the vegetation layer (Phragmites australis, Salix alba and Sambucus nigra) growing naturally along a Pb-contaminated ditch bank. The analysis showed a different lead accumulation among the species and their plant tissues. Salix trees were not affected by the Pb contamination, possibly because their roots mainly develop below the contaminated deposit. Differently, Sambucus accumulated high concentrations of lead in all plant tissues and fruits, representing a potential source of biomagnification. Phragmites accumulated large amounts of lead in the rhizomes and, considering its homogeneous distribution on the site, was used to map the contamination. Analysing the Pb concentration within plant tissues, we got at the same time information about the spread, the history of the contamination and the relative risks. Finally, we discussed the role of natural recolonizing plants for the soil pollution mitigation and their capacity on decreasing soil erosion and water run-off.