June 2020

How does standardization protect the environment?

Today is World Environment Day, designated by the United Nations’ Environment Programme as a chance for everyone to reflect on the global impact we have on the environmental and to learn about positive changes.

We are so excited that our work can be part of global action to help protect the environment. Through our development of manufacturing and reference materials, studies on standardization, and genomics work, we enable scientists to better understand the impact of human activities.

For example, there are concerns about the impact hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, might have on groundwater at drill sites. Fracking is being increasingly used to tap into natural gas deposits in the earth. But many have concerns, particularly about potential groundwater contamination at drill sites and whether that source feeds into the drinking water in those communities.

We’re the first company to offer an SI-traceable certified reference material for light hydrocarbon gases in water, which can be used to help confirm that quality monitoring of groundwater is reliable. By supporting testing for contamination, we help protect consumers and their access to safe, clean water.

Our scientists in the UK’s National Measurement Laboratory (NML) at LGC also play an important role in environmental research.

Mercury (Hg) is a naturally occurring element, found in soil, water and air. It is also one of the most toxic metals, and exposure can affect the nervous, digestive and immune systems.

To protect human health and the environment from its adverse effects, European and global directives, like the Minamata Convention, ensure mercury is closely regulated. The industrial sector is one of the main causes of mercury pollution, with mercury being released in gaseous form in to the atmosphere. Systems to continuously monitor mercury emissions, including the more reactive species oxidised mercury Hg(II), are installed in stacks. These are calibrated using standardised mercury solutions to give accurate results about the mercury content at the source of emission (e.g. power plants and cement factories).

However, little data exists on the purity of these solutions and the mercury salts that are used in their preparation. Typically, the salts used are HgCl2 or HgBr2, obtained from common chemical suppliers, and the elemental impurities are often not well characterized. Even at a very low-level, these impurities within the salt could potentially affect the calibration of the gas standard generators over time and compromise the fidelity of the monitoring system. This could lead to inaccurate mercury readings and potentially more mercury being released in to the atmosphere than is safe.

Using our expertise in inorganic purity and speciation analysis, the NML developed a broad screening approach for elemental impurities of more than 70 elements in mercury salts using inductively coupled plasma tandem mass spectrometry (ICP-MS/MS) in variety of cell gas modes and direct sample introduction. We validated our approach for elemental purity through an international inter-laboratory comparison study between national measurement institutes (CCQM). Using this method we worked with the Dutch measurement institute, VSL, to screen the HgCl2 salts being used to prepare the mercury standards.

The success of this work has led to the NML’s involvement in a European project (EMPIR 19NRM03) that started this year to develop protocols for certification of oxidised gas generators and provide input into new and existing standards to provide the measurements required to meet legislation obligations and protect human health.

Our work in the genomics field also contributes to positive environmental impact. Due to the high demand of palm oil, farmers are under pressure to increase yields and agricultural production, which risks detrimental impact on the environment. LGC, Biosearch Technologies partners with palm oil producers to sustainably improve farming productivity through marker-assisted breeding.

Our tools allowing farmers to select plants at an early stage of development which have preferred traits and will therefore lead to higher yields when matured. Ultimately, this helps palm oil producers meet demand with less impact on the environment.

We're proud of the legacy our scientists are contributing to, in using their expertise to help create a safer world.