Behind the Scenes of Water Quality Science at Environment Canada
A suite of buoys and instruments on the research vessel 'Limnos' used to measure weather data such as wind and sun, water currents and temperature, as well as water quality. Photo: Dave Gilroy © Environment Canada, 2008. - Click to enlarge
At sites all over Canada -- the Arctic, Great Lakes, prairie ponds and wetlands, large cities, coastlines, forests, farmland, rivers and more -- Environment Canada scientists and enforcement officers collect samples to better understand what is happening to our water and the life forms that depend on it.
Environment Canada’s network of labs is critical to support water quality research, monitoring and enforcement to sustain Canada’s water resources and freshwater ecosystems.
The success of these scientific studies depends on a skilled team of experts who ensure that the right equipment is available for carrying out field research and analysis in the lab.
Leadership in Innovation
Environment Canada labs are at the forefront of analyses, frequently developing world-class methods for detecting chemicals of concern. For example, new methods are used to detect certain herbicides, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), pharmaceuticals, pesticide degradation products, which can make their way into our waters and threaten our environment.
Deploying an APEX buoy in Great Bear Lake, NT. Photo: Ross Neureuther © Environment Canada, 2008.- Click to enlarge
The labs also provide chemical and toxicological analysis of samples collected to investigate illegal environmental activities. Many of the scientists in the labs are considered leaders in their respective fields and are routinely called as expert witnesses to provide testimony in provincial and federal environmental investigations.
Without such skilled scientists and technicians, supported by specialized, high-tech labs, environmental research, monitoring and the enforcement of environmental regulations would grind to a halt.
Field Support in Action
Before any samples make their way back to the labs, two groups ensure field research is carried out in the best conditions possible.
Engineering Services makes sure that current technology is used to support research and monitoring needs. For example, this group designed, tested and deployed a high-tech buoy in the remote Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories. The buoy sends measurements by satellite back to the office, allowing scientists to use the data in real time.
Technical Operations Services take care of planning, management, logistical support and operation of field laboratory and sampling sites. They provide scientific diving operations and underwater remotely operated vehicle services, and oversees the vehicle fleet used by water scientists. The group also offers expert technical advice on methods for collecting samples and safe working procedures for field operations.
A Snapshot of the Labs
Atlantic Laboratory for Environmental Testing staff starting a toxicity test. Photo: Wayne Fairchild © Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2008. - Click to enlarge
Here are just a few of the activities undertaken in each of Environment Canada’s regional water labs:
It’s not CSI but DNA testing is routine work at the Atlantic Laboratory for Environmental Testing housed at New Brunswick’s Université de Moncton campus. One of the primary specializations at this lab is in oil matching, using a DNA “fingerprinting” of sorts that links oil found on birds to a specific source. This information is used to support the Birds Oiled at Sea (BOAS) seabird protection program.
At the Quebec Laboratory for Environment Testing in Montreal, Quebec, only being super-clean will cut it. The lab is home to the Ultra-Trace Mercury Analysis Laboratory centre of excellence, a high-tech, ultra-clean lab that creates the ideal conditions for detecting minute levels of mercury in samples. Such a “clean” lab is needed because the mercury that is everywhere in the natural environment could contaminate samples.
The National Laboratory for Environmental Testing (NLET) in Burlington, Ontario, operates on the understanding that the smallest amounts of contaminants can be harmful. That’s why its labs are able to detect lower and lower levels of many environmental contaminants, such as organics, metals, pesticides and flame retardants.
ThePrairie and Northern Laboratory in Edmonton, Alberta supports enforcement of environmental protection legislation through analysis of sediments, soils and sludges, among other things. This lab is the national centre of excellence for a number of analyses including microbial (bacterial, yeast and mold) identification for the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 New Substances Notification regulations.
In North Vancouver, British Columbia, the Pacific and Yukon Laboratory takes advantage of its location near the ocean to be the only lab in the country to study salmon toxicogenomics – the study of how an organism's genetic information responds to toxic substances. It was also the first lab to report on the effects of some toxic substances on tadpoles, and it is currently collaborating on studying the effects of low-level pharmaceuticals on these tiny creatures. The lab is a leader in its field, with highly developed expertisein tracking bacteria sources using a DNA-based method to identify sources of fecal contamination in water, sediment and shellfish stock.
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- Analytical methods developed by the National Laboratory for Environmental Testing (NLET) were chosen as the International Polar Year standard. They are being used exclusively to determine POPs in the air in several international locations ranging from Northern China to the Canadian Arctic.
- NLET prepares Certified Reference Materials (CRMs) that are shipped to over forty countries. CRMs are samples of water or sediments and are used, for example, in lab quality control, environmental research, monitoring and surveillance.
- It takes more than 200 research and technical staff to keep these labs up and running all year round.
- About 80 per cent of the work done at the Prairie and Northern Laboratory for Environmental Testing is in support of enforcement of regulations.