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A Matter of Taste (and Odour)

There was a time when, for analytical chemists within the water industry, dealing with customer quality complaints was a nightmare.

Every so often, a water utility would receive a complaint from a consumer that their tap water “tasted funny”. The company would send someone round to the customer’s house to investigate the problem and to collect a sample. Back at base, this sample would be tasted and smelt on receipt of the sample into the lab, possibly assessed by the taste and odour panel and eventually end up in the analytical lab for them to identify the compound (or compounds) responsible for the problem.

At this point, if there was a real problem, everyone would be concerned and would urgently need to know:

  1. What was causing the problem?
  2. What were the risks?
  3. Where was the problem originating from?

The pressure would be on the analytical chemists to come up with the answers quickly.

Sometimes labs would get lucky. The smell might be distinctive enough to give useful clues to its source. It might be due to something that was already a target compound and could be picked-up by using an existing analytical method.

On other occasions, the lab would be less fortunate and screening the sample by GC-MSD would give inconclusive results. This would mean that analysts would have to issue a “tentative identification” or own-up to the embarrassing fact that they didn’t really have a clue what was causing the problem!

This made some quality problems very tricky for everyone involved.

Then the Agilent GC/Q-TOF was launched.

For the first time a high resolution, accurate mass GC-TOF MS was available that was robust, easy to use and affordable. This instrument was a very powerful tool when applied to the identification of unknown compounds.

  • The GC/Q-TOF offered much higher sensitivity when acquiring full spectra. This was important because many problem compounds have very low taste and odour thresholds.
  • High resolution accurate mass capability meant that, for every analyte, in addition to EI spectra, you also got accurate mass measurements that gave you information on empirical formulae.
  • If you got a really tough problem, you could carry out MS/TOF MS to help work-out the structure of individual ions in the EI spectrum.

Because of the GC/Q-TOF, it is now much easier to characterise problem samples and to do so quickly. This enables the lab to be more responsive to consumer quality issues.

For water utilities, rapid identification of contaminants means that any risks are identified quickly and the contamination can be tracked back to the source of the taint and eliminated in short order.

If this story feels familiar and you would like to understand more about how the Agilent GC/Q-TOF can help you serve your customers better, please call us on +44 (0)1223 279210 or email us on

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