The Latest on Chemicals

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Clare Pierson: Underwriters Laboratories (UL) recently announced that they made significant improvements to testing methods for taste and odor compounds in drinking water. Can you explain what these improvements are?

Jeff Smith: UL recently made significant investments in research and development to develop new testing methods and improve upon existing ones. In the taste and odor area, we wanted to apply the latest techniques to improve the accuracy and precision of Standard Method 6040D. By incorporating isotope dilution, chemical ionization and tandem mass spectrometry techniques, we were able to increase the sensitivity, accuracy and precision of the method and reduce the matrix effects and instrumental variation.

Secondly, we developed an in-house method for analyzing taste and odor issues designated as V210. This new method allows us to rapidly quantitate a wider range of drinking water taste and odor compounds than previously available. Unlike similar testing methods, which may take weeks to complete, our proprietary method enables analysis results within 48 hours, allowing our customers to resolve issues more quickly—and with the added compounds, the municipality has even more information on which to base their actions.

Pierson: With the sometimes compatible yet sometimes competing trends of staying cost-effective and going green, how is UL adapting and growing?

Smith: There are several ways UL is working to meet environmental challenges, and I would say that they are not necessarily competing, but in fact complementary in many cases. For instance, UL was one of the first certifying bodies to be accredited under EPA’s WaterSense program, which helps consumers identify water-efficient products. These products not only conserve water but also are intended to save consumers and businesses on their water bills.

Also this year, UL launched UL Environment, a new business unit focused entirely on certifying and setting standards for green products. Again, like products that meet WaterSense specifications, many of these products are designed to conserve energy and reduce environmental impact, saving consumers and businesses money.

Pierson: Almost a year and a half has passed since the Associated Press broke the story of the high levels of pharmaceuticals in the country’s drinking water. Has the situation gotten any better? How is UL staying on top of it?

Smith: This is a complicated situation. On the one hand, laboratories have developed the ability to detect contaminants at very low concentrations. Yet there is still a lot of work to be done to determine if and at what concentrations these contaminants pose health hazards. To add another layer of complexity, there is the issue of whether municipalities will need to alter their current treatment systems to remove these contaminants cost- effectively. There’s a lot of research being done, but it will be some time before we have the answers to these questions.

UL continues to stay on top of both the latest analytical technologies as well as the latest focus of research in water contaminants. UL is already preparing for the upcoming UCMR3 regulations, which will provide occurrence data for a new set of contaminants as well as the direction of the EPA’s Contaminant Candidate List 3. Another area that UL has been researching is disinfection byproducts. There is a much broader set of chemicals that are being formed in the water treatment process than previously thought, and many of these contaminants may pose more significant health risks than those currently regulated.

Pierson: Do you foresee manufacturers and municipalities being required to use or develop products that not only provide a certain level of water quality, but a certain level of water efficiency as well?

Smith: The trend is definitely in that direction—whether through voluntary consensus standards or regulation remains to be seen. With all the water quality and scarcity problems we are seeing on a global basis, it is an item of top priority on everyone’s agendas—consumers, businesses as well as public service institutions—to work diligently to protect this important natural resource.

Jeff Smith is general manager, global water and food safety business, for Underwriters Laboratories. Smith can be reached at jeffrey.b.smith@us.ul.com.

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