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Interview with Maria J. Belzunce Ph.D., leader of MONITOOL Work Package 4 (Database Management and correlation studies)

Maria J. Belzunce Ph.D. leads the Work Package 4 (Database Management and correlation studies) of the MONITOOL project. She works in the Marine Research Division of AZTI Foundation, located in the Basque Country - Spain. She has over 20 years experience working on trace metals and their effects in the marine environment.ebelzunce 3

What is the aim of Work Package 4?

The purpose of Work Package 4 (WP4) is to develop a common database to allow the compilation and interchange of all information related with physico-chemical parameters and metal concentrations for quality water assessment. The participation of all Partners is required in this work package because they must provide data from their regions to the database.

AZTI, as leading partner of WP4, guarantees an efficient cooperation between partners which is relevant to achieve the goals of this activity within the timeframe and accordingly to the methodology established by all Partners.

Which type of data is provided in the database?

Two types of data:

  • Data obtained from the literature related with dissolved metal concentrations from “classical” spot water sampling, with chemically labile metals and with labile metal concentrations derived from Diffusive Gradient Thin films (DGTs), and
  • Data obtained in this project from the eight consortium regions that cover the whole Atlantic region, including also the Mediterranean areas. These data include the dissolved metal concentration from spot water sampling, the chemically labile metals and the labile metal concentrations derived from DGTs. Furthermore, the physico-chemical parameters measured "in situ" every sampling time in 8 different regions are also collected in the database.

The physico-chemical parameters are the following: salinity, temperature, sampling depth, dissolved organic carbon, suspended matter, turbidity and "in situ" observations.

How many data have you provided to the database?

Data from literature are very scarce. We have not found many studies related with parallel measurement of metal concentrations in dissolved water (taken by spot sampling) and labile metal concentration in DGT resins with raw data available. In this sense, this study represents a novelty as it is the first database that compiles a large number of this type of data from different European regions.

In the framework of Monitool project we have produced more than 250 DGT samples and more than 500 water samples. In each DGT sample, the concentration of priority (Cd, Ni and Pb) and specific metals (Al, Cr, Co, Cu, Fe, Mn and Zn) have been analyzed and the data reported in the database. In each water sample the priority and specific metals have been analyzed by seaFAST ICP-MS. Besides, in each water sample, the priority metals have been analyzed by voltammetry technique. All the obtained data have been recorded in the database.

This means that, apart from the physico-chemical parameters data, the database compiles about 2,500 data of metal concentrations in DGT resins, and about 6,500 data of metal concentrations in marine and estuarine water samples.

With such large amount of data how did you deal with the database in order to minimize errors in data transcription, to reduce variability and to guaranty the homogeneity and comparability of data, same units, etc.?

The database was designed by AZTI as leader of WP4 and put in consensus with the other partners. In the same way, the protocol for the database management was proposed by AZTI and discussed among partners until reach a common agreement.

Each Partner was responsible for their data to be recorded in the database following the agreed protocol. After all data collection, several revisions were done by AZTI to guaranty the homogeneity of data.

Apart from the data collection, what other function fulfils the database?

The database is not only for data collection, but it is need for the information interchange between partners and for the statistical analysis to relate metal concentrations in Diffusive Gradient Thin films (DGTs) with spot water samplings. It is also necessary to evaluate the effect of water physical-chemical parameters in trace metal concentrations, and finally, based on the data recorded and on the correlations between data, it is possible to propose a methodology to obtain Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) adapted to the labile metal concentration obtained by DGTs. This step is the final purpose of the database and it is performed in close collaboration with Work Package 6 leaded by IFREMER.

As a matter of fact, last September, AZTI and IFREMER had a workshop to analyze correlations between data and to propose a methodology for adapted “labile metal concentration” EQS.

IPMA complete metal analysis in seawater samples

The MONITOOL project aims to establish technical/scientific conditions to monitor existing metal contaminants in the coastal and estuarine waters using passive sampler devices. This objective is particularly important for monitoring the chemical state of these waters to further application to the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. 

Nuno at IPMAThe Portuguese Institute of the Sea and Atmosphere (IPMA) was the partner responsible for the task involving the determination of the total concentration of trace metals in water using a seaFAST sampling system coupled with an ICP-MS (Perkin-Elmer NexION 2000C).

Up to 400 estuarine/seawater samples were collected and analysed. Total dissolved concentrations of Cd, Pb, Ni, Co, Cu, Mn and Zn were determined in coastal and estuarine waters from several areas of France, Ireland, Italy (Sardinia), Portugal, Spain (Basque country and Canary Islands), Scotland and United Kingdom.

Based on the obtained results, metal levels varied within wide ranges evidencing conditions from pristine to anthropogenic metal contamination. For metals regulated by the WFD (Cd, Pb and Ni) by the EQS (Environmental Quality Standards), the higher concentrations were found in estuarine waters even surpassing the regulatory values. This pattern was also found for the other analysed elements although some high values are related with natural processes. Are example Mn and Co which are related with freshwater input and early diagenetic processes.

An exercise was performed among all partners to evaluate contamination during the sampling procedure. Adequate sampling conditions were found for Cd, Ni, Co, Cu and Mn, while for Pb and Cd and additional cleaning step is needed.

UNICA (University of Cagliari) organized a conference the 20 June 2019 in Cagliari

UNICA (University of Cagliari) organized a conference the 20 June 2019 in Cagliari, entitled “New approaches for the quality assessment of the marine environment in the context of European Directives”. The aim of this event was to present the objectives and first results of MONITOOL to a broad audience, composed of stakeholders, harbour authorities, university professors from different disciplines and experts in the marine environment. UNICA is the only Partner of MONITOOL located outside the Atlantic Region, so, it was the perfect occasion to outreach relevant target groups in the Mediterranean.


Apart from the presentations provided by the colleagues from UNICA, that is Marco Schintu, Alexandre Bettoschi and Natalia Montero, the event benefited from the participation of two people from AZTI, María Jesús Belzunce-Segarra and Iratxe Mentchaca, as Partners of the MONITOOL project. Briefly, MONITOOL was presented to the audience, highlighting the limitations of current monitoring programs and the potentiality of DGTs to comply with the requirements of European Directives. Besides, the preliminary results obtained in the project were presented.

By means of this event it was possible to extend the impact of MONITOOL project. The potential use of DGTs for complying with regulatory monitoring, as regard the assessment of the chemical status, attracted the attention of the public and generated interesting debates. Besides, the presence of experts from different disciplines enriched the final discussion of the event.

MONITOOL Data Quality Assurance: a holistic view

The significant number of Diffusive Gradient in Thin films (DGTs) passive samplers and spot samples collected during the Winter and Summer Seasons campaigns were transported during 2018 to designated MONITOOL partner laboratories for the analysis of a range of heavy metals, including lead, cadmium and nickel, which are regulated under the EU Water Framework Directive.

IFREMER [1] was responsible for the analysis of DGTs, while the filtered spot samples were analysed by IPMA[2] using SeaFast inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and IST[3], using voltammetry. Each type of analyses was purposely carried out by one specific laboratory in order to minimise inter-laboratory variability and therefore limit analytical uncertainty that would be naturally higher if several laboratories were to carry out the same analysis on their respective samples.

CEFAS september 2019

Each partner laboratory responsible for the analysis of samples followed comprehensive and stringent Quality Control procedures to ensure that generated laboratory results are as accurate as possible and not subject to contamination from the laboratory itself. These quality control procedures do not however fully preclude the odd analytical errors or a contamination in a particular sample. Having analytical data generated by 3 different methods for each location gave the opportunity to have an additional and more holistic level of Quality Assurance.

With over 1,200 laboratory analyses completed by June 2019, Cefas[4] coordinated the review of the “raw” data generated by the three partner laboratories. For this, analytical results obtained for DGTs, spot samples by ICP-MS and voltammetry were compared in order to identify outliers across the 3 sets of data. Outliers were also evaluated within each set of data generated by a particular laboratory using “expert judgment” for water samples or by statistical means devised by IFREMER for DGTs. Where potential outliers were identified, each partner laboratory was tasked to double-check their raw data.

These treated datasets were subsequently distributed to each partner for final sound-checking of their own samples, applying their local knowledge of expected concentrations. Both “treated” and “non-treated” datasets were finally submitted to AZTI[5] who are now in the process to carry out the statistical analysis of both sets of results in order to establish whether a relationship between heavy metal concentrations in DGTs and spot samples can be defined.

[1] Institut Français de Recherche pour l'Exploitation de la Mer, France

[2] Instituto Português do Mar e da Atmosfera, Portugal

[3] Instituto Superior Técnico, Portugal

[4] Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, UK

[5] Fundación AZTI, Spain

DGT Conference 2019 will be the fifth international scientific event with MONITOOL presence in 2019

Until the end of August, MONITOOL participated in 4 scientific events presenting the project and its first results. On September will take place the 5th event, with the attendance to the DGT Conference 2019 in Vienna.

2019 is being a productive year. Project´s partners attended 4 different international events during the first half of this year for the dissemination of the knowledge acquired during MONITOOL lifetime. These events were:

  • The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES 2019) celebrated at the University of Evora (Portugal) in March 4-8, was attended by Maria Jesús Belzunce (AZTI) with an oral presentation and by Miguel Caetano (IPMA);
  • The SETAC Europe 29th Annual Meeting, which was held in Helsinki (Finland), between the 26 and 30th May, where Iratxe Menchaca (AZTI) contributed with an oral presentation and Blánaid White (DCU) presented a MONITOOL poster;
  • After that, on 4 and 5 June, Joana Larreta (AZTI) participated in the XV International Estuarine Biogeochemistry Symposium (IEBS) in the University of Vigo (Spain), with a poster and flash presentation about MONITOOL;
  • Finally, OCEANS ’19, which was held in Marseille (France), between 17 and 20 June, with the participation of Fiona Reagan (DCU) through a poster presentation.

SETAC 2019 

In September, this scientific dissemination work will continue in the framework of the DGT Conference 2019, to be held at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, in Vienna. At this event, Blánaid White (DCU), Project Coordinator, will present the Keynote Lecture – Session 4, under the name of “MONITOOL: Strategies to enable the use of DGTs in a regulatory context” and Natalia Montero (UNICA) will show the results obtained in two estuaries of the Basque Coast.

It is also worth noting that other members of the Project such as Maria Jesús Belzunce (AZTI), Marco Schintu (UNICA) and Hao Zhang (member of the MONITOOL Scientific Advisory Board) will be part of the Committee Members, thus ensuring that MONITOOL will be widely represented at this scientific meeting.

In addition to these occasions, MONITOOL partners have also had the opportunity to share their knowledge to a scientific-technical audience by means of the celebration of 2 Technical Conferences in Canary Islands, organized by ITC in May and a technical event that took place in June in Sardinia, in charge of UNICA.