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Air and Heavy Metals Program

Providing air and heavy metal analysis services.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Are heavy metals harmful to human health?

Some heavy metals are toxic to both humans and animals. Others are necessary nutrients for normal health in trace amounts but become toxic if received in higher amounts. Still others have no known health effects. Many times, the toxicity of a metal is determined in large part by its form (oxidation state and ligand coordination). For example, mercury is much more toxic as methyl mercury than in its elemental form. In general, toxic metals are enzyme poisons, and the specific affect and toxicity are the result of many factors.

Where do heavy metals some from?

Heavy metals are present in the environment from both naturally occurring and man-made (anthropogenic) sources. Naturally occurring sources include mineral deposits and ores, while man-made sources are generally by-products of industrial and/or manufacturing processes such as mining and coal-fired power plants.

How do heavy metals get into drinking water?

Source water may contain metals from the natural weathering of rocks in contact with the water, or as the result of contamination. Ground water wells located in heavily mineralized areas often contain metals.

What should I do if I suspect my water may contain heavy metals?

Contact your local water purveyor or a New Mexico Environment Department field office. Public water supplies are required by law to conduct routine compliance monitoring for metals and other regulated contaminants. However, private wells are generally not covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations. Homeowners with private wells should have samples tested at an accredited private laboratory or call the Environment Department.


Dissolved Metals

"The concentration of elements determined in a sample after the sample is filtered through a 0.45 micron filter". The determination of dissolved metals is directed at only those particles, molecules, and elementary forms of the metal that are able to pass through a 0.45 micron filter. The sample must be filtered at the time of collection, but before the addition of any acid preservation.

Total Metals

"The concentration of elements extracted from an aqueous or solid sample following a reflux period with dilute mineral acids". The determination of total metals is directed at all forms of a metal in the sample, including dissolved metals and the metals in all particulates. The sample undergoes a volume reduction step, then repeated refluxing (with the continued addition of acid) until the reaction is complete. The sample is then brought up to volume with reagent water and filtered.

Note: The sample should NOT be filtered at the time of collection.

Total Recoverable Metals

"The concentration of elements in either a solid sample or in an unfiltered aqueous sample following treatment with hot, dilute mineral acid". The determination of total recoverable metals is directed at metals weakly bound to particle surfaces plus dissolved metals. The sample undergoes a volume reduction step, then refluxed in hot, dilute mineral acid(s) for 30 minutes. The sample is then brought up to volume with reagent water and filtered. Note: Unfiltered samples with turbidity < 1 Nephelometric Turbidity Unit (NTU) do not require digestion. Results for these samples are reported as "total recoverable" metals.


Inductively Coupled Plasma - Optical Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-OES)

The following elements are analyzed: Aluminum, Barium, Beryllium, Boron, Cadmium, Calcium, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Potassium, Silicon, Silver, Sodium, Strontium, Vanadium, and Zinc.

ICP (EPA method 200.7)

A fast, reliable, multi-element technique. ICP does suffer from many spectral interferences of which most are known and corrected for, however, high levels of some elements may affect the reportable level of trace constituents.

An ICP scan is typically requested when the composition of a sample is unknown. Since typical detection limits are 0.1 mg/L, this analysis is generally not useful for drinking water samples.

Inductively Coupled Plasma - Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS)

The following elements can be analyzed: Aluminum, Antimony, Arsenic, Barium, Beryllium, Cadmium, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Lead, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silver, Thallium, Uranium, Vanadium, and Zinc.

ICP-MS (EPA method 200.8)

A fast, reliable, multi-element technique. Detection limits are extremely low, and the technique suffers from few interferences. However, ICP-MS will not tolerate samples with high dissolved solids, therefore, analysis of environmental samples by ICP-MS is selective.

Graphite Furnace Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (GFAAS)

Offers extremely low detection limits, and most interferences are known and corrected for. However, GFAAS is a single-element analysis, and EPA method 200.9 is only used for analyzing Selenium, which has interferences in EPA method 200.8.

Cold Vapor Atomic Absorption (CVAAS)

Similar to FAAS, but the sample is liberated chemically instead of thermally from the surrounding matrix. For Mercury determinations only.

Collection and Preservation

Water Samples

1-liter cubitainer or other metal-free container. Preserve with concentrated nitric acid to pH < 2 (the amount of nitric acid will vary depending on alkalinity, but usually is about 3 mls).

Note: Lead/Copper compliance samples must be collected from a faucet or other end-point that has NOT been used for the previous 6 hours; use the cold water tap only). Submit within 5 days from collection.


100 grams, well mixed. Less than 100 g. of sample can be used for analysis, but this may not constitute a representative sample. No chemical preservation is required, but store at 4 ° C. Can be submitted any time after collection.


At least 5 milliliters (mls), depending on the test(s) requested. Must be collected into a metal-free vessel containing Sodium-EDTA (preferred) or Heparin. For plastic vessels, preserve sample by freezing; for glass vessels, preserve by refrigeration. Submit as soon as possible following collection.


At least 20 grams of a representative sub-sample (do not submit entire organisms), collected into a metal-free vessel. For plastic vessels, preserve sample by freezing; for glass vessels, preserve by refrigeration. Submit as soon as possible following collection.

Air Filters

Collection, preservation, and handling of air filters varies by filter media and program. Contact us for specifics.

Lead and Copper Samples

Please see our Instructions for Lead and Copper Sample Collection for details.

Other Sample Types

Contact us for collection and preservation of other sample types.

Obtaining Supplies

Metal-free cubitainers and request forms are available at no charge. Contact the Kit Preparation section for details.

Shipping and Handling

Samples should be delivered to the Specimen Receiving area as soon as reasonable possible after collection, preferably within 5 days. Each sample submitted must have a corresponding request form (one sample, one form). Evidentiary samples should be delivered as Chain of Custody (inquire at Specimen Receiving area). Samples may be delivered in person, by mail or courier.

Note: We provide courier service to clients submitting biological samples at no charge. Deliver samples to any state Public Health Office.

Particulate Matter

New Mexico measures Particulate Matter. Particulate Matter (PM) consists of very small liquid and solid particles. Particulate Matter is a kind of pollution that consists of things floating in the air. Most of the PM floating in the air you cannot see. PM found in the air include these very small liquid and solid particles we commonly know as dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. PM can cause such physical responses as coughing, sneezing, painful breathing and can aggravate asthma. Particulate Matter may be the air pollutant that affects people's health more often than any other.

The Filter Weighing Rooms are Climate and Static Controlled

The EPA sets air quality standards for PM. The EPA defines the maximum amount of airborne particles that can be present in outdoor air before those particles threaten the public's health. EPA regulates two size groups or classes of particles - particles up to and including 10 microns across (PM10) and particles up to and including 2.5 microns across in size (PM2.5). Each of these groups is measured in microns or micrometers (a micron is one-millionth of a meter). Plant and animal cells range in size from 10 microns to 100 microns. PM10 and PM2.5 are each expressed as the amount, based on weight (in micrograms) of particles contained in a cubic meter of air, micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). PM2.5 particles are smaller than PM10 and are considered a subset of PM10.

PM10 Balance

PM is a mix of the two classes of particles with the PM2.5 more common for most US cities. This mix varies by day and time of day. These particles vary in shape, size and chemical composition, and can be made up of many different materials such as metals, soot, soil and dust. Particulate Matter is most often from the burning of fuels, such as gasoline from cars, oil, diesel, or wood. In New Mexico we also include oil and gas refining. Wind-blown dust, which is common in the spring in New Mexico, also contributes to PM10 pollution.

Visibility is Monitored

Visibility in New Mexico can range from zero to more than 100 miles.

The EPA states that "Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter are referred to as "fine" particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs."

Exposed PM2.5 Filters are Returned and Conditioned in the Weighing Room

Filters are conditioned prior to being weighed. The conditioning shelves contain the clean conditioning filters (filters to be weighed and sent out to be sampled), as well as the exposed (returned PM2.5 filters). Both are conditioned to the room environment for a period of time prior to being weighed.

PM2.5 can become deeply embedded in the lungs. The lung is not readily able to remove PM2.5 from the lung tissue; rather, those particles work deeper into the lungs. At times of high PM concentrations scientists have noted increased hospital, emergency room, and doctor's office activity for respiratory illnesses or heart disease. Also of note is the worsening of both asthma symptoms and acute and chronic bronchitis. Scientists have found a relationship between high PM levels and reductions in various aspects of the healthy functioning of people's lungs.

The EPA further states that "Health studies have shown a significant association between exposure to fine particles and premature death. Other important effects include aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease (as indicated by increased hospital admissions, emergency room visits, absences from school or work, and restricted activity days), lung disease, decreased lung function, asthma attacks, and certain cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks and irregular heartbeat. Individuals particularly sensitive to fine particle exposure include older adults, people with heart and lung disease, and children."

The elderly, children and those people with heart and/or lung diseases are particularly at risk to the harmful effects from high levels of PM exposure. Children are affected due to their size and development. Infants and children are affected from inhaling PM pollutants because they inhale more air per pound of body weight than do adults - they breathe faster, spend more time outdoors and have smaller body sizes. Infants, due to their immature immune systems may be more susceptible to PM than healthy adults.

Please read the Health and Environmental Effects of Particulate Matter page for additional information.

Federal Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter

The EPA Ozone and Particulate Matter Standards page defines the following standards.

  • Federal EPA Standard PM10: Annual Average 50 µg/m3 24-Hour Average 150 µg/m3
  • Federal EPA Standard PM2.5: Annual Average 15 µg/m3 24-Hour Average 65 µg/m3

Air Quality

Ambient air contains particles of many different types, sizes and sources. The measurement of particulates in air can be determined by retaining the various particulates on filters. We do gravimetric analysis of certain types of air filters; in some cases, elemental analysis can be done. Clean filters are first conditioned, then weighed and sent to clients for exposure. The exposed filters are returned to us, where they are again conditioned and weighed. The difference of the exposed weight minus the tare (clean) weight provides the net filter loading. Air filters are examined in support of the Clean Air Act found in the Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFR, Part 60).

Mass Fractions

The most common way to discriminate different particles in air is based on their aerodynamic diameter. Typically this is the entire mass fraction (no discrimination), PM 10 microns or smaller in aerodynamic diameter or particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in aerodynamic diameter. These mass fractions are termed Total Suspended Particulates (TSP), PM10, and PM2.5, respectively. We routinely do the gravimetric determination for all three types of fractions; however, the need to measure various mass fractions is determined by the specific program or client. While clients must procure the required sampling equipment specific for each fraction, it is advisable to check with us first for equipment compatibility before purchasing.

Filter Media

The size and composition of filter media is often stipulated by (regulated) program requirements. However, clients should always check with the lab first as a precaution. Different filter media often requires different mass standards (necessary for analysis), conditioning requirements, and sometimes holding times.

Readability and Repeatability

The smallest difference between two measured values that can be displayed is called the readability. A measure of the ability of a balance to display the same result in repetitive measurements of the same weight under the same measurement conditions is called the repeatability (also called precision). We can provide readability of 1 microgram (0.000001 g.); the specific program Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) defines precision. Clients should check with us for specific applications.

Drinking Water

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) mandates that public water systems conduct routine testing for regulated and certain un-regulated inorganic constituents. Primary contaminants have established Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) which are legally enforceable standards. Primary contaminants are known to cause health problems. Secondary contaminants are known to cause cosmetic objections only, such as taste and odor, but have no enforceable standard.

Primary Contaminants

  • Antimony
  • Arsenic
  • Barium
  • Beryllium
  • Cadmium
  • Chromium
  • Mercury
  • Nickel
  • Selenium
  • Thallium
  • Lead
  • Copper


  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Manganese

Learn More

Please use the Safe Drinking Water Information System Search for more information regarding possible MCL violations in your public drinking water supply. You may also find the Private Drinking Water Well Consumer Information a good resource regarding private wells.


Analytical testing of all non-drinking water samples, including water, sediment, soil and sludge, other solids, biological (serum, blood and tissue), and other materials can be performed. Samples from regulated programs such as the Clean Water Act are examined by EPA approved methods found in the Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFR, Parts 136, 258-60). EPA approved methods and variations thereof are used to examine samples from non-regulated programs.