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Tapping into laboratory computing


The journey of water from reservoir to tap involves many


tests. Siân Harris finds out why systems such as LIMS play an important role in environmental labs


T


urning on a tap for a glass of water is generally a simple task. A much larger task is ensuring that the water that flows to consumers, farmers


and industry is safe to drink and not full of contaminants. To ensure this, water companies need to


take regular samples from many different locations and water sources, including rivers, reservoirs and wells. Samples need to be tested within a certain time of being taken, otherwise the balance of contaminants changes too much for the results to be meaningful. Water companies also need to test the


water quality being delivered to consumers in different locations. What’s more, there are extra demands if there is a complaint or something in the water exceeds permitted limits. For example, last year in Pennsylvania in the USA there were instances where water at households tested positive for methane, which is believed to have come from gas wells in the bedrock. Such a situation requires frequent testing until the problem has been identified and resolved.


8 SCIENTIFIC COMPUTING WORLD Guidance about the levels of contaminants


permitted in water supplies is given by the World Health Organization, but is implemented differently in different countries. It also changes frequently as potential new risks are identified and added to the list of compounds that need to be tested for. In the USA, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency reviews its regulations in five-year cycles. According to Colin Turston, director of product strategy, process industries at Termo Fisher Scientific, in the latest cycle 23 additional contaminants have so far been identified for which testing is required. New contaminants might include


pesticides or pharmaceuticals that are not metabolised and have begun to work through to the water system. ‘Tere have been instances recently of the painkiller ibuprofen showing up in wild salmon,’ says Turston, who adds that when such things happen, they place additional regulatory pressure on environmental labs. ‘As we discover more things to be scared about, more testing is needed to ensure that we are not scared.’


All these requirements and changes put pressure on the environmental labs tasked with testing water quality. For staff carrying out tests in the labs, this heavy workload needs to be evenly spaced throughout the week and across trained staff members. In addition, new contaminants need to be added to the testing regime as they become part of the regulations. Tere also needs to be flexibility to add in extra or repeat tests whenever they are required, not to mention taking into account changes in staffing and instrumentation.


The call for computing And then there is the demand for increased efficiency. ‘For commercial labs, the market is highly competitive, with customer service as the major driver to make them ever more efficient,’ observes John Gabathuler, director, industrial and environmental of LabWare. ‘Tey are under constant pressure to drive down costs, to keep prices competitive, and to be flexible and responsive – driving up laboratory throughput and capacity and lowering turnaround times. Not only this, but the laboratories themselves and the customers they serve are also subject to ever more stringent, evolving and widening international and national regulatory controls.’ Tis situation poses a huge logistical


challenge for laboratory managers. Fortunately, however, computers are


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