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
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
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
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
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.