Environmental Applications of Chromatography
One of the biggest concerns in our world today is the state of the environment. Every day, our planet faces new challenges contributing to climate change, deforestation, and ozone depletion. Although, one of the most prominent problems we are facing is pollution. Chemical and solid waste contamination in our water, air, and land contribute to the overall pollution of our planet. Chemical contaminants and solid waste can come from a vast variety of sources such as landfill waste, industrial sites, pesticides, and everyday plastics like food packaging that contains polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. There are numerous amounts of harmful contaminants that can be found in our environment, each with different compositions and the potential for more unknown contaminants to be created through degradation or a transformation process like hydrolysis.
Regulations put in place by organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) require the presence of harmful contaminants to be traced at very low concentrations. This can be a challenging task, but it can be overcome by using chromatography. Chromatography methods have the ability to detect trace levels of contaminants efficiently and cost effectively. Varying forms of chromatography analysis methods such as gas chromatography and high-performance liquid chromatography are used to determine the presence and level of pollution present in our air, water, and land, although there are many other environmental applications of chromatography as well.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are compounds that are typically human-made and exist in items such as paint, gasoline, dry-cleaning agents, printers, and aerosol cans. VOCs are emitted as a gas that has numerous health concerns for humans, such as liver or kidney damage. VOCs are also detrimental to our environment and are known to create smog. Under sunlight, VOCs react with the nitrogen emitted by most industrial buildings, cars, and power plants. When these two components react, ozone is formed which also helps form fine particles. The combination of ozone, fine particles, and the pollution emitted by VOCs creates smog. Smog is known to aggravate heart and lung conditions in humans, hurt plant growth, and damage crops and forests.
Gas chromatography is one of the most common ways to detect, identify, and quantitate VOCs in the air. Thermal desorption gas chromatography with mass spectrometry is one method in particular that can be used.
Water pollution exists in many forms that hurt our environment. Agriculture plays a large role in water pollution, as farms often release a mass amount of organic waste into drainages leading to bodies of water. Toxins like nitrogen can make seawater uninhabitable for some creatures and create health complications in infants if released into water. Likewise, oil is unable to dissolve into water and can heavily pollute our water sources through spills, dumping, and routine shipping. Oil in our water sources is known to kill animals and can make water unfit for drinking.
One of the most common ways our water becomes polluted is through plastics. Plastics are non-biodegradable and are found in a wide range of everyday products. Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a manmade chemical used in many plastic products such as food packaging and apparel as they are heat, stain, and water-resistant. One of the most notable ways PFAS have impacted our environment is through the famous 3M settlement where the company 3M was sued for damaging drinking water with PFAS which can ultimately lead to serious health problems in humans. 3M and many similar manufacturing companies are now looking to limit their PFAS level. Chromatography is one way to analyze the PFAS that are present in our drinking water.
Solid-phase extraction and liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) is the preferred method for detecting water pollution of contaminants such as PFAS. Solid-phase extraction is used before liquid chromatography to concentrate the contaminant before separation. LC-MS methods are then used to detect extremely low limits of PFAS in the water supply. LC-MS can is also used to detect and analyze individual PFAS for a greater understanding of their presence and spread throughout the environment.
Another challenge with PFAS analysis is PFAS are routinely used in manufacturing processes, so it is possible to have system contamination in the solvents, tubing, fittings, filters, and other parts used in the manufacture and routine operation of a liquid chromatograph. Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is a fluoropolymer used in all major (U)HPLC systems and can be a potential source of PFAS contamination during analysis. We provide a recommendation for reducing the potential sources of PFAS background interference contamination in an Agilent 1260 Infinity II and an Agilent 1290 Infinity II system, to allow sensitive quantification of these analytes.
Land pollution is the third largest category of pollution impacting our environment today. Industrialization, urbanization, deforestation, and overcrowded landfills all play a role in creating land pollution. Like water pollution, the agricultural industry creates large amounts of land pollution.
Bayer, the producer of Roundup, which includes glyphosate as a key ingredient, has said to be responsible for 95,000 cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma due to the use the ingredient glyphosate’s potential carcinogen properties. Pesticides like glyphosates are used to maximize crop yields; however, they are detrimental to our health, as demonstrated by Bayer’s settlement and soil quality by stripping the soil of important minerals and other compounds. A simple large volume injection method for trace-level glyphosate in bottled drinking water was recently published on the new Restek Raptor Polar X column. Both gas and liquid chromatography methods can be used to analyze and identify harmful fertilizer and pesticide presence in soil. Chromatography has also recently played a major role in revitalizing soil that has been contaminated by pesticides. News studies have found that thermal air and water vapor plasma can quickly degrade residual pesticides in soil. The analysis used gas chromatography mass spectrometry to test the concentration of pesticides present in the soil before and after treatment, finding that the residual pesticides were reduced after treatment to the soil.
The environmental impacts of water, air, and land pollution are some of the biggest threats to our planet's well-being and go far beyond just hurting our planet. Environmental destruction translates to the destruction of human life as we know it by making some parts of our earth unlivable for humans and animals alike and increasing the possibility of contacting deadly health complications.
The environmental applications of chromatography are used to identify, quantify, and analyze harmful pollutants in our environment to follow EPA regulations that protect our planet and our health. Using chromatography supplies and methods like revitalizing damaged soil can also be used to better our planet as we continue to study the effects of pollution.