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Reliable data on sea pollution

   
 
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Without accurate chemical data, it is impossible to protect the sea against pollution. Policy decisions based on poor quality data could have devastating social, economic and environmental consequences.
The QUASIMEME project, involving 90 key marine monitoring laboratories from all the maritime member states, has succeeded in determining the current accuracy of their measurements. Using a holistic Quality Assurance approach, it has identified key sources of error, and has made demonstrable progress towards improving the quality of monitoring data.
QUASIMEME has built an effective European marine monitoring network, which will continue on a self-financing basis, providing national and international agencies with increasingly reliable data from the contributing marine institutions.

The effectiveness of international efforts to protect and improve the marine environment is critically dependent on the reliability of the levels of chemical pollutants. If they are to make good decisions, policy-makers and regulators need reliable, quality environmental monitoring information.
However, it is notoriously difficult to establish true comparability between data collected at different test sites. Laboratories commonly produce significantly different measurements from the same samples, even when they use the same test methods. In common with colleagues in other fields, marine scientists have for decades been frustrated by their inability to achieve widespread inter-laboratory agreement.
Inaccurate measurements have the potential to produce large economic and social impacts. The hypothetical case of a laboratory which tests fish for mercury contamination as the basis for the issue of export certificates illustrates the danger. A false positive may condemn valuable fish stocks and impose crippling and unnecessary losses on the fish producer. A false negative, on the other hand, may allow onto the market fish that constitute a major threat to human health.
Though less dramatic, the danger posed by variations in the analytical accuracy of Europe's marine institutes is no less real. Mapping the chemical contamination of the North Sea, for example, will be of value only when there is agreement between the testing laboratories involved. Unless this agreement is strong and demonstrable, it is impossible to be sure whether high or low pollution levels are real, or are simply the products of poor measurement. Unable to see their target clearly, politicians may implement policies which are either unnecessarily strict or dangerously relaxed.

Lack of agreement

Since 1972, under the direction of the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES), inter-laboratory studies have been undertaken to determine levels of agreement on tests for pollutants of interest to the Oslo-Paris Commission (OSPARCOM) and other international marine monitoring programmes. Their results were conclusive. The laboratories' results simply did not agree, and for a wide range of reasons.
The attempts to improve this situation and largely ineffective. What was needed was a comprehensive programme which would not only identify the shortcomings of current marine measurement, but provide the framework for a coherent, incremental approach to improving the quality of the data.
In 1989, OSPARCOM's North Sea Task Force sought the support of the European Commission for such a programme. The Commission's response was positive, and the result was the QUASIMEME project, funded under the Standards, Measurements and Testing programme (SMT).
Coordinated by SOAEFD Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, QUASIMEME brought together 89 laboratories, drawn from almost every EU member state. National participation was roughly proportional to the size of each country's fishing industry, and applications were only accepted from laboratories currently submitting data to a recognised marine monitoring programme.
The partners' shared goal was to identify and overcome the obstacles to better and more reliable chemical measurement. The project would adopt a Quality Assurance (QA) approach, which it would apply holistically, not only to test procedures themselves but to the whole measurement cycle, from test planning to the interpretation of results.

Introducing quality control

The project was formally launched at the start of 1993, with an ambitious workplan covering three key areas. First, a Quality Assurance management programme set out to improve management procedures, documentation, and the traceability of information. Second, a large-scale testing scheme was designed to determine the current analytical accuracy of the participating laboratories, to highlight the major sources of error, and to promote best practice through a series of training workshops. Third, a programme of communication activities aimed to ease the flow of information and expertise between participants, and between the project as a whole and such bodies as OSPARCOM.
The testing scheme, which constituted the operational strand of the project, was conducted in five rounds between 1993 and 1995. The plan was to iron out basic problems of mis-calibration in the first round, and to progress to more persistent sources of error as quality, and confidence, grew. Each round focused on the same groups of determinants - nutrients in sea water, metals in sediment and organochlorine residues in fish and sediment. With each round the complexity and difficulty of the tests was increased. Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons were added at a later stage.
Between rounds, each laboratory received a report on its performance, and workshops were organised at centres of excellence, in order to address key issues. Laboratory staff were able to spend time in high-quality facilities, learning new techniques from experts which they could then apply in their own laboratories.
The test results demonstrated that very slight differences in sample handling and storage methods, and in test methodology, produced large variations in test results. However, the issues were not purely technical. There were also wide differences between laboratories' underlying philosophies and approaches, with considerable variation in the relative importance which they attached to accurate measurement.
The workshops were undoubtedly effective as a means of transferring good practice to weaker partners. Establishing personal as well as institutional links between the participants was also found to be critical for long-term performance improvement. Through meeting their colleagues face-to-face, individuals became personally responsible to one another for the quality of their work. Mutual understanding, respect and trust grew to the point where the members of the partnership felt themselves to be engaged in an important collaborative venture, larger than the project itself.

Trust, enthusiasm, real improvement

By March 1996, when the EC-funded project ended, QUASIMEME had succeeded in building a marine monitoring network capable of supporting meaningful environmental assessments of Europe's seas. The accuracy and reliability of the information it provides had been improved. More important still, the quality of the data was known. Less reliable data could be discounted, and the route to improving its accuracy was clearly mapped out.
A follow-on SMT project, QUASH (Quality Assurance of Sample Handling), will build on QUASIMEME's initial work in the area of sample handling and storage. The project itself is to continue in an independent initiative, which provides surprising evidence of the coherence of its original partnership. Of the 79 laboratories still involved when the EC-funded project ended, 65 have signed up to continue the joint work on a subscription basis, at their own expense. They are joined by 55 new partners from as far afield as Australia, South Africa, and Vladivostock.
Self-financed, it will enable its members to take part in a continuous series of laboratory performance studies. It will continue the development of procedural and management guidelines, and will provide training workshops for those laboratories which still have problems.
QUASIMEME offers a compelling illustration of the way in which Community action can stimulate sustainable initiatives requiring activity at a European, rather than at national, level. Europe's improved ability to protect and manage its seas, and their products, will bring untold benefits to all its citizens.

 

Project Title:  
Quality Assurance of Information for Marine Environmental Monitoring in Europe

Programmes:
Industrial and Materials Technologies (BRITE-EURAM/CRAFT/SMT)

Contract Reference: MAT1-CT92-0002

Cordis DatabaseFor more information on this project,
go to the CORDIS Database Record

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