Reassurance on the quality of water supply is just one factor behind higher demand for faster and more accurate laboratory testing services. Patricia Moore talks with four specialists driving innovative solutions for councils.
Increasing public concern and legislative demands for improved environmental management and safer drinking water, are coinciding with public expectations of greater accountability from local bodies around the services they’re delivering. Decisions at council level are under the microscope as never before.
Jane Sherrard is the market sector manager – environmental at Hill Laboratories. “Ultimately,” she says, “local authorities are making important decisions, based on our results, which can affect hundreds of thousands of people. The expectation to find better ways of doing things is inherent.”
The freshwater testing sector is rising to the challenge with innovations leading to more accurate results, faster.
Cawthron Institute’s natural toxins section head Catherine Moisan says that, given the complexity of testing for toxins – and the public health risks around issues such as toxic algae – any innovations that improve the speed of delivery are well received.
“Looking ahead, we’ll see more potential tech disruption influencing analytical methodology. We expect faster and more sensitive methods and, potentially, remote sensors and rapid kits that will eventually become more reliable and may even get through the regulatory system. This has to be well managed as council data must be robust.”
Analytica MD Terry Cooney says innovation is already heading outside the lab. He points to an increasing array of options for in-field testing providing real-time data.
He notes that these devices or sensors are often not as sensitive for any one sample as a piece of laboratory equipment. But, as he points out, the availability of frequent data from in-field options can be as useful as more sensitive one-off analysis from a laboratory.
“They need to be adopted alongside laboratory-based testing,” he says. He adds that this is contingent on challenges such as data communication, power, maintenance – particularly in remote locations – and calibration being overcome.
Meanwhile, Jane says that, like most industries, problems or frustrations are the source of all innovation in the analytical sectors. “Broadly speaking there are three main areas of importance to local government; the timeliness, quality and reliability of the data.”
Hill Laboratories is continuing to invest in the digital space, she says, rolling out sample submissions by app over the past two years.
“Customer needs are pre-filled when samples arrive at the lab. This reduces paper waste, the capacity for human error, and the time it takes to move them through the testing processes. Traceability is greater because the app records GPS location each time a sample is taken.”
Jane says Hill Laboratories is also about to launch an online portal. She says this will be the first phase of a multi-year upgrade to the organisation’s laboratory information management system.
“This portal gives customers control over the ordering of their own supplied items required to carry out testing.”
Last year Catherine consulted with councils to support the development of a new service for freshwater algae monitoring. This aims to target analysis of the organisms of interest to councils.
According to Catherine, the research group is also working to develop molecular analyses to screen freshwater samples and detect the presence of potentially toxic algae.
“If results reveal a full analysis is required the sample is processed using highly-accurate, yet big-budget, liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry [LC-MS]),” she says.
“Molecular technology significantly outpaces traditional methods with improved result turnaround time, giving councils the opportunity for a faster public health response if required.”
Terry says other smart solutions emerging include:
- developments in microbiological testing, including DNA testing technologies;
- the use of inductively-coupled plasma mass spectroscopy instrumentation (ICP-MS) for rapid mineral and heavy metals analysis, by which a range of 20 or more elements can be analysed, and reported, within a 24-hour period; and
- real-time air and gas testing with new technologies such as selected-ion flow-tube mass spectrometry (SIFT-MS).
At ESR, innovative approaches are being explored to problems arising from nitrogen washing through alluvial soils into aquifers that feed lakes and rivers. This is putting increasing quantities of nitrates into the environment in areas including Canterbury, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough.
Senior science leader Murray Close says solutions include Biogas Induced Denitrification (BID) in groundwater and denitrifying Permeable Reactive Barriers (PRB).
“These are being coupled with aquifer characterisation using advanced shallow depth geophysics and groundwater microbial community analysis to enable the effective design, delivery and implementation of these mitigation tools.”
These new methods for on-farm denitrification will enable more sustainable farming systems, says Murray.
“While denitrification walls are a tried and tested concept in slow-moving sandy aquifer systems, there are no examples of these remediation systems having been installed in gravel aquifers such as those found in Canterbury.
“In this regard the PRB pilot study represents a world first.”
Murray says another ESR technology trial involves the use of denitrifying bioreaders to reduce nitrate from artificial drains.
“An example is the Barkers Creek catchment in South Canterbury where an in-stream bioreactor using woodchips is being installed near the end of a drainage system that collects shallow groundwater. This stimulates denitrification and reduces the nitrate before it enters Barkers Creek.”
Catherine expects innovations allowing for faster and more cost-effective testing will have flow-on effects for local authorities.
“They’ll have the opportunity to make informed decisions around preventative actions and report back to communities sooner.”
But Terry says the demand needs to be there. He argues that running testing labs is not core business for any local authority and, in the long term, the best outcomes will arise from a partnership with parties whose business it is.
But, he notes “local authorities have a lot of legacy data and there can be a reluctance to change testing methods, even if there are inherent advantages in new approaches to doing things”.
Finally, Jane adds that laboratories are becoming less of a closed-door operation and people know more than they used to.
“The more scientific knowledge they accumulate, the more questions they’ll ask about our role in providing New Zealand with such vital resources as drinkable water and swimmable lakes and rivers,” she says.
“Consumer-driven, accessible science will have a big impact in the coming years.”
- Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.