Potential sources of analytical bias and error in selected trace element data-quality analyses

Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5135
By: , and 



Potential sources of analytical bias and error associated with laboratory analyses for selected trace elements where concentrations were greater in filtered samples than in paired unfiltered samples were evaluated by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Water Quality Specialists in collaboration with the USGS National Water Quality Laboratory (NWQL) and the Branch of Quality Systems (BQS).

Causes for trace-element concentrations in filtered samples to exceed those in associated unfiltered samples have been attributed to variability in analytical measurements, analytical bias, sample contamination either in the field or laboratory, and (or) sample-matrix chemistry. These issues have not only been attributed to data generated by the USGS NWQL but have been observed in data generated by other laboratories. This study continues the evaluation of potential analytical bias and error resulting from matrix chemistry and instrument variability by evaluating the performance of seven selected trace elements in paired filtered and unfiltered surface-water and groundwater samples collected from 23 sampling sites of varying chemistries from six States, matrix spike recoveries, and standard reference materials.

Filtered and unfiltered samples have been routinely analyzed on separate inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry instruments. Unfiltered samples are treated with hydrochloric acid (HCl) during an in-bottle digestion procedure; filtered samples are not routinely treated with HCl as part of the laboratory analytical procedure. To evaluate the influence of HCl on different sample matrices, an aliquot of the filtered samples was treated with HCl. The addition of HCl did little to differentiate the analytical results between filtered samples treated with HCl from those samples left untreated; however, there was a small, but noticeable, decrease in the number of instances where a particular trace-element concentration was greater in a filtered sample than in the associated unfiltered sample for all trace elements except selenium. Accounting for the small dilution effect (2 percent) from the addition of HCl, as required for the in-bottle digestion procedure for unfiltered samples, may be one step toward decreasing the number of instances where trace-element concentrations are greater in filtered samples than in paired unfiltered samples.

The laboratory analyses of arsenic, cadmium, lead, and zinc did not appear to be influenced by instrument biases. These trace elements showed similar results on both instruments used to analyze filtered and unfiltered samples. The results for aluminum and molybdenum tended to be higher on the instrument designated to analyze unfiltered samples; the results for selenium tended to be lower. The matrices used to prepare calibration standards were different for the two instruments. The instrument designated for the analysis of unfiltered samples was calibrated using standards prepared in a nitric:hydrochloric acid (HNO3:HCl) matrix. The instrument designated for the analysis of filtered samples was calibrated using standards prepared in a matrix acidified only with HNO3. Matrix chemistry may have influenced the responses of aluminum, molybdenum, and selenium on the two instruments. The best analytical practice is to calibrate instruments using calibration standards prepared in matrices that reasonably match those of the samples being analyzed.

Filtered and unfiltered samples were spiked over a range of trace-element concentrations from less than 1 to 58 times ambient concentrations. The greater the magnitude of the trace-element spike concentration relative to the ambient concentration, the greater the likelihood spike recoveries will be within data control guidelines (80–120 percent). Greater variability in spike recoveries occurred when trace elements were spiked at concentrations less than 10 times the ambient concentration. Spike recoveries that were considerably lower than 90 percent often were associated with spiked concentrations substantially lower than what was present in the ambient sample. Because the main purpose of spiking natural water samples with known quantities of a particular analyte is to assess possible matrix effects on analytical results, the results of this study stress the importance of spiking samples at concentrations that are reasonably close to what is expected but sufficiently high to exceed analytical variability. Generally, differences in spike recovery results between paired filtered and unfiltered samples were minimal when samples were analyzed on the same instrument.

Analytical results for trace-element concentrations in ambient filtered and unfiltered samples greater than 10 and 40 μg/L, respectively, were within the data-quality objective for precision of ±25 percent. Ambient trace-element concentrations in filtered samples greater than the long-term method detection limits but less than 10 μg/L failed to meet the data-quality objective for precision for at least one trace element in about 54 percent of the samples. Similarly, trace-element concentrations in unfiltered samples greater than the long-term method detection limits but less than 40 μg/L failed to meet this data-quality objective for at least one trace-element analysis in about 58 percent of the samples. Although, aluminum and zinc were particularly problematic, limited re-analyses of filtered and unfiltered samples appeared to improve otherwise failed analytical precision.

The evaluation of analytical bias using standard reference materials indicate a slight low bias for results for arsenic, cadmium, selenium, and zinc. Aluminum and molybdenum show signs of high bias. There was no observed bias, as determined using the standard reference materials, during the analysis of lead.

Suggested Citation

Paul, A.P., Garbarino, J.R., Olsen, L.D., Rosen, M.R., Mebane, C.A., and Struzeski, T.M., 2016, Potential sources of analytical bias and error in selected trace-element data quality analyses: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2016–5135, 58 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/sir20165135.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Sites and Collection of Samples
  • Laboratory Analysis
  • Experiments
  • Data Evaluation
  • Matrix Matching Filtered and Unfiltered Samples
  • Influence of Instrumentation
  • Spike Recoveries
  • Analytical Precision
  • Standard Reference Materials
  • Conclusions and Steps Forward
  • Acknowledgments
  • References
  • Supplemental Information A–E

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Potential sources of analytical bias and error in selected trace element data-quality analyses
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2016-5135
DOI 10.3133/sir20165135
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Office of the Director USGS
Description vi, 58 p.
Online Only (Y/N) Y