Water Testing EPA Methods for Heavy Metals

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Heavy metals are pollutants that can enter the drinking water system when they seep through soils into groundwater. Arsenic, cadmium and lead are just a few of the heavy metals in the environment at unsafe levels. Heavy metal pollution is usually the result of untreated mine waste but can also result from other industrial processes including the manufacturing and use of pesticides and fertilizers.


Heavy metals pose significant health risks at high concentrations in drinking water. the EPA uses Inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectrometry (ICP-AES), a special method to test for heavy metals in water.

Atomic Spectrometry

  • Atomic spectrometry converts each metal in the water sample to a particulate emission that can then be weighed. Extrapolations are made to determine each metal concentration in each water sample taken. The complicated analysis requires preserving the sample with acid, heating the sample to convert to a particulate emission and then identifying each metal and its weight.

    A simple analogy is to capture the steam from a pot of water, separate every atom in the steam, identify each atom, weigh each atom and then apply these numbers back to the original volume of water contained in the pot. The result is an accurate picture of what is in the water.

Heavy Metals in Water

  • High heavy metals concentrations can be naturally occurring. Every geologic formation contains a certain amount of heavy metal. Mine operations extract and process these metals in areas with the highest concentrations. Water in these areas may have high metal concentrations due to the combination of naturally occurring deposits and mine waste. Water samples are usually taken randomly within a contaminated area and offsite to identify the source of contamination and the pathway it travels, into the drinkable groundwater system or away from potable water sources. Accurate determination of heavy metal contamination is important to identify cumulative risks to people drinking water derived from these areas.

Treating Heavy Metal Contamination in Water

  • Heavy metal water contamination is a difficult expensive problem to address. Most cleanup activities use a pump and treat system where contaminated groundwater is pumped out of the ground, treated with activated carbon to remove contaminants and then replaced into the groundwater system. Because large volumes of water must be pumped and treated over long time periods, associated operation and maintenance systems are very expensive. There are some new technologies being developed that actually treat the water in the ground which operate more efficiently and quickly, decreasing costs.

    If groundwater is contaminated with heavy metals, an alternative source of drinking water must be used to prevent harmful health effects, until the water is treated to meet standards protective of human health and the environment.

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