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Published: 6 March 2018

Environmental monitoring is becoming increasingly important in society, where the Water Directive and the pursuit of environmentally sustainable development have led to increased demands for monitoring and quantification of the impact of various activities and products on the environment.


Increasingly sophisticated analytical methods and ways of evaluating environmental impact are demanded by industry, government and consumers. Particularly in complex environments where there are numerous natural and anthropogenic sources of high levels of pollution, it can be difficult to identify and quantify the significance of the different sources. Over the last decade, the number of studies of environmental impact in soil, water, vegetation and animals has steadily increased, and the new research area Environmental Forensics has emerged.

Environmental Forensics involves water and sediment sampling as well as advanced analytical techniques used to determine element concentrations and isotopic compositions

Environmental Forensics is a broad subject area, where field studies are combined with analytical chemistry, environmental chemistry, biogeochemical modelling and data interpretation. The development of Environmental Forensics has led to better tools for tracing sources of pollution in the environment. Environmental Forensics is developing rapidly today. This is primarily linked to the development of new analytical techniques, in particular the possibilities of studying new isotope systems using Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) technology. This instrumentation is installed in Luleå, and is run through a research collaboration between the analytical laboratory ALS Scandinavia AB and Luleå University of Technology.

Drinking water supplies can be mentioned as an example of an application of Environmental Forensics. The conditions for safe drinking water supply are already affected by climate change, and drinking water bodies are also vulnerable to contamination. Climate change in combination with new or previously known pollutants thus presents two major future challenges to ensure drinking water supply in a long-term perspective. Critical pollutants include metals as well as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are present in fire extinguishing foam. The presence of PFAS in groundwater near airports appears to be a general phenomenon, and has for example been reported from the airports at Arlanda, Luleå, Uppsala (Ärna) and Ronneby. Environmental Forensics is a general method that can be used in connection with drinking water supply for tracing groundwater and pollution sources as well as tools for the establishment of water conservation areas surrounding drinking water resources.

At Luleå University of Technology, the project Waterface - Environmental Forensics will be running in 2016-2019, financed by Tillväxtverket and Länsstyrelsen Norrbotten. The overall objective is that the project will develop innovative, commercial products (analytical methods and interpretation tools) to track and quantify pollutants and sources of pollution. The project will thus contribute to long-term management of the environment, and environmentally sustainable social development. The project has the following four intermediate goals:

  1. Analytical Development. To develop isotope and screening analyses as tools for tracking pollutants in the environment
  2. Interpretation tool. To develop and launch innovative interpretation tools for these analyses
  3. Demonstrators. Field sites where the potential in isotope and screening analyses is demonstrated to track environmental pollution, describe diffusion patterns and evaluate effects of possible actions.
  4. Network. A network is created by potential users of the results of the technology developed in the project

The analytical laboratory ALS Scandinavia AB and the environmental consulting company ÅF in Luleå (formerly Vatten & Miljöbyrån) participate in the project. ALS Scandinavia AB in Luleå is national and international leader in the field of advanced elementary analyses. As a result of the long-term cooperation between the company and researchers at Luleå University of Technology, Luleå is Sweden's center for analyses of stable isotopes with ICP-MS technology. Combined with environmental consultants at ÅF, this provides excellent opportunities for further development of Environmental Forensics, both nationally and internationally.

Anders Widerlund

Widerlund, Anders - Associate Professor

Organisation: Applied Geochemistry, Geosciences and Environmental Engineering, Department of Civil, Environmental and Natural Resources Engineering
Phone: +46 (0)920 491863