Feb 23

Monitoring mercury: measurements to make air cleaner

Air pollution across the EU accounts for more than 400,000 premature deaths and 6.5 million people falling ill each year. It causes significant damages to our natural environment, with almost two thirds of our ecosystems threatened by the effects of air pollution.

It is often the primary air pollutants – e.g. nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter – that are first brought to mind when considering air pollution. However, other air pollutants, such as the heavy metal mercury, are highly toxic and can cause severe damage to human health and the environment.

The UNEP Minamata Convention (signed in 2013) is a global treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury, providing, for example, control measures on its release into the environment. In order to understand the on-going effects of mercury on humans and the environment it is crucial to be able to accurately measure these levels to assess concentrations and trends.

laser ablation-1At LGC we have been working with other European measurement institutes as a partner in an EU-funded project (known as EMRP ‘MeTra’) to help provide the measurement infrastructure to support current EU legislation, ensure the quality and comparability of mercury measurement results and underpin advanced analytical techniques of the future. As there are currently no EU-approved methods for mercury in air, we have developed a high accuracy, direct analysis method using inorganic mass spectrometry combined with laser ablation (LA-ICP-MS) to support the current EU methods. This has been applied to real-world environmental samples (air filters) from rural and urban environments.

These results will feed into the UK and EU committees on air quality (BSI EH/2/3, CEN TC264) and will help to provide the evidence base for the next generation of standard methods for air quality assessment.


Following on from the success of this project, a subsequent project (Metrology for oxidised mercury) was funded by EMPIR in 2016 under the challenge ‘metrology for environment’ to further address this challenging issue. This project will start this summer (2017).


For more information on our work in this area please contact us.


For information on LGC’s Air PT scheme, please click here.


LGC, the UK National Measurement Laboratory and Designated Institute for chemical and bio-measurement

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