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Use of set blanks in reporting pesticide results at the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Laboratory, 2001-15

August 9, 2019

Executive Summary

Background.—Pesticide results from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Water Quality Laboratory (NWQL) are used for water-quality assessments by many agencies and organizations. The USGS is committed to providing data of the highest possible quality to the consumers of its data. A cooperator’s inquiries about specific pesticide detections in water revealed potential laboratory contamination issues for some results. Consequently, the USGS conducted an extensive evaluation of potential low-level contamination related to processing or analysis of water-quality samples at NWQL for 21 pesticide compounds of interest to the cooperator. This is the most comprehensive study of NWQL pesticide quality-control (QC) results to date.

Purpose and scope.—The purpose of this study was to document protocols used by the NWQL to censor pesticide results and to determine the effects of laboratory contamination—as determined from detections in laboratory set blanks—on pesticide detections in groundwater and surface-water samples. More than 30,000 pesticide results from 113 selected batches of samples (2 percent or less of total batches) analyzed by the NWQL during the 15 years from 2001 to 2015 were reviewed. All laboratory results from the selected batches, including results from environmental (surface water and groundwater) and QC (set-blank, blind-blank, and blind-spike) samples, were evaluated. The study includes results for 21 pesticide compounds analyzed in groundwater and surface-water samples collected across the United States. Eleven pesticide compounds were analyzed by a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry method and 10 compounds by a liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry method.

Objectives and methods.—The objectives of this study were to (1) determine the characteristics of laboratory contamination over time, (2) compare distributions of pesticide results in set blanks with distributions in environmental samples, (3) evaluate the potential for false-positive and false-negative reporting of results, and (4) evaluate the effects of reevaluating historical pesticide results using 2017 compound identification protocols on detections of pesticides in groundwater and surface-water samples. The 113 instrument batches selected for this study contained detections of one or more of the 21 pesticide compounds in set blanks or were among those batches with the highest pesticide detection frequencies in set blanks. As a result, the dataset for this study was targeted toward pesticides and batches with laboratory contamination. The objectives were addressed by statistically comparing environmental and set-blank results; computing moving averages of set-blank detection frequencies to identify periods of episodic contamination; and using summary statistics, tabular summaries, and graphical approaches, such as time-series plots and cumulative distribution functions.

Results.—Objective 1: Laboratory contamination, as determined by pesticide detections in set blanks, was found in 13 percent of set-blank results from the 113 targeted batches included in this study (as compared to 6 percent of set-blank results from all 7,620 batches analyzed during the study period). It is estimated that 92 percent of the laboratory contamination during the study period was episodic, meaning that it occurred during discrete periods of time. All 21 of the targeted pesticide compounds had periods of episodic contamination, with most episodes ranging in duration from about 1 to 8 months. The remaining 8 percent of laboratory contamination was random or from a known source (deterministic).

Objective 2: For some compounds, graphs of cumulative distribution functions of the entire distributions of set-blank and environmental samples overlap, suggesting that there is no difference in the distributions of the two types of samples. However, time-series graphs show that detections in set blanks often occur at different times (sometimes separated by years) than detections in environmental samples, indicating clear differences in those distributions, and indicating the importance of evaluating the timing of detections in all sample types.

For most compounds detected in set-blank and environmental samples, detection frequencies were significantly greater in set blanks than in groundwater or surface-water samples (p<0.05). There are several explanations for this finding, including that the 113 batches of samples chosen for this study targeted batches with detections in set blanks or that detections in set-blank samples were historically determined with less stringent identification criteria than for environmental samples (groundwater and surface-water samples).

Objective 3: The false-positive and false-negative rates from blind samples submitted during the study period by the USGS Quality Systems Branch generally were less than 1 and 5 percent, respectively, for the 21 pesticides. The only compound with a false-positive rate greater than 1 percent was flumetsulam (2.6 percent), indicating that there is a higher likelihood of flumetsulam being reported as a detection when it is not present in an environmental sample compared with the reporting of other compounds.

Objective 4: Altogether, for data in targeted batches, NWQL would have reported 0.1 percent of results from groundwater samples and 1.4 percent of results from surface-water samples differently if 2017 identification protocols were applied to historical pesticide results. In most of these cases, detections observed in historical results would change to nondetections. The small percentages of changes that would occur if historical data were reevaluated indicate that historical protocols used by the NWQL to identify detections in environmental samples were robust and produced results that are predominantly consistent with current [2017] practices.

Conclusions.—The NWQL produces high-quality pesticide results at environmentally relevant concentrations. NWQL identification protocols and censoring practices are largely effective at minimizing the reporting of false-positive and false-negative results. Laboratory contamination, when it occurred, tended to occur in episodes; thus, evaluating the timing and magnitude of detections in set blanks relative to detections in environmental samples was determined to be an important consideration for analysis of environmental results. Because NWQL censoring practices do not address all types and occurrences of laboratory contamination, options for additional censoring practices are provided for data users with more specific or stringent data-quality objectives. The methods used to analyze the 21 compounds for this report can similarly be applied to all 173 pesticide compounds that were analyzed by the NWQL during the same time period. This study also has helped to identify potential improvements in reporting USGS data, such as conducting more frequent review of set-blank datasets.

Publication Year 2019
Title Use of set blanks in reporting pesticide results at the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Laboratory, 2001-15
DOI 10.3133/sir20195055
Authors Laura Medalie, Mark W. Sandstrom, Patricia L. Toccalino, William T. Foreman, Rhiannon C. ReVello, Laura M. Bexfield, Melissa L. Riskin
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2019-5055
Index ID sir20195055
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center; National Water Quality Assessment Program; National Water Quality Laboratory; New England Water Science Center; New Jersey Water Science Center; New Mexico Water Science Center; Office of Water Quality; Branch of Analytical Serv (NWQL); WMA - Earth System Processes Division; WMA - Laboratory & Analytical Services Division