National Water Quality Laboratory

Sunday July 22, 2018

USGS Open-File Report 97-829

Methods of Analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Laboratory — Determination of 86 Volatile Organic Compounds in Water by Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry, Including Detections Less Than Reporting Limits

Brooke F. Connor, Donna L. Rose, Mary C. Noriega, Lucinda K. Murtagh and Sonja R. Abney


This report presents precision and accuracy data for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the nanogram-per-liter range, including aromatic hydrocarbons, reformulated fuel components, and halogenated hydrocarbons using purge and trap capillary-column gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. One-hundred-four VOCs were initially tested. Of these, 86 are suitable for determination by this method. Selected data are provided for the 18 VOCs that were not included. This method also allows for the reporting of semiquantitative results for tentatively identified VOCs not included in the list of method compounds. Method detection limits, method performance data, preservation study results, and blank results are presented.

The authors describe a procedure for reporting low-concentration detections at less than the reporting limit. The nondetection value (NDV) is introduced as a statistically defined reporting limit designed to limit false positives and false negatives to less than 1 percent. Nondetections of method compounds are reported as “less than NDV.” Positive detections measured at less than NDV are reported as estimated concentrations to alert the data user to decreased confidence in accurate quantitation. Instructions are provided for analysts to report data at less than the reporting limits. This method can support the use of either method reporting limits that censor detections at lower concentrations or the use of NDVs as reporting limits. The data-reporting strategy for providing analytical results at less than the reporting limit is a result of the increased need to identify the presence or absence of environmental contaminants in water samples at increasingly lower concentrations.

Long-term method detection limits (LTMDLs) for 86 selected compounds range from 0.013 to 2.452 micrograms per liter (µg/L) and differ from standard method detection limits (MDLs) in that the LTMDLs include the long-term variance of multiple instruments, multiple operators, and multiple calibrations over a longer time. For these reasons, LTMDLs are expected to be slightly higher than standard MDLs. Recoveries for all of the VOCs tested ranged from 36 (tert-butyl formate) to 155 percent (pentachlorobenzene). The majority of the compounds ranged from 85 to 115 percent recovery and had less than 5 percent relative standard deviation for concentrations spiked between 1 to 500 µg/L in volatile blank-, surface-, and ground-water samples. Recoveries of 60 set spikes at low concentrations ranged from 70 to 114 percent (1,2,3- trimethylbenzene and acetone). Recovery data were collected over 6 months with multiple instruments, operators, and calibrations.

In this method, volatile organic compounds are extracted from a water sample by actively purging with helium. The VOCs are collected onto a sorbent trap, thermally desorbed, separated by a Megabore gas chromatographic capillary column, and finally determined by a full-scan quadrupole mass spectrometer. Compound identification is confirmed by the gas chromatographic retention time and by the resultant mass spectrum, typically identified by three unique ions. An unknown compound detected in a sample can be tentatively identified by comparing the unknown mass spectrum to reference spectra in the mass-spectra computer-data system library compiled by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

VIEW the report. (pdf)

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