“Water is life,” as Dr. Luca Lucentini of Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS), is fond of saying.
The availability and safety of water supplies is a global challenge, especially in water-stressed countries such as Italy, and requires continuous effort. Public health organisations must not only prevent scarcity but also reduce the probability of contamination by a wide range of substances, from cyantoxins to emerging contaminants to ever-problematic lead and arsenic. Entities such as the Italian Superiorie de Sanita (ISS) are using cutting-edge technologies to support a holistic approach to water safety. The carefully coordinated efforts of the ISS promote better water quality as well as legislative and regulatory action for minimizing contamination across the country's numerous water sources.
Water Stress in Italy and Around the World
The World Health Organization estimates that half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas by 20251. For Italy specifically, the World Resources Institute has listed it as the 44th most water-stressed country, with “high baseline water stress.”2
This stress has multiple causes including lengthier droughts and heatwaves, plus ongoing shifts in snowmelt and stream flow patterns in the Alps3. The overarching effects of climate change as well as the ongoing contamination threats posed by metals and other toxins, only add to the difficulty of ensuring water safety and availability.
In this context, Italy’s ISS, founded in 1934, has worked to ensure a safer and more readily available water supply across the country. The ISS advises the Ministries of Health, Environment, and Industry on how to deal with a variety of water-related problems, including scarcity, wastewater management, desalination, and contaminant monitoring.
“A key mission of the ISS is to protect public health from many risks caused by chemical compounds in the environment and ensuring quality of water,” explains Lucentini. "Our goal is to provide science to support legislation and knowledge.”
Promoting Public Health in Water Management
The team at the ISS works at the intersection of water and public health. The organization focuses on both quantitative and qualitative concerns regarding water for human use; from irrigation to industrial operations to consumption. These efforts help the ISS also work toward the implementation of Water Safety Plans aligned with EU Directive 2015/1987. Water Safety Plans are meant to analyze the entire chain of drinking water and to mitigate any risk of contamination, andLucentini and his team are making them a reality.4
“We are in charge of developing and organizing the analytical procedures and methods for performing water quality monitoring by the Italian laboratories,” Lucentini says.
Coordinated action is paramount to this approach. By collaborating closely with other groups specializing in environmental and climate change issues, the ISS has improved the overall control and protection of water resources, through specific actions such as:
- Monitoring the drinking water supply chain, from the source to the tap.
- Performing holistic analysis of the sanitation chain for wastewater reuse.
- Establishing national guidelines for desalination and drought/scarcity management.
- Developing a water safety plan with expanded focus on controlling contaminants.
“The difficulty with maintaining water quality is the continuously evolving challenges, such as climate change and various emerging contaminants," Lucentini said. “Moreover, with the complex ecosystem of regulations and the agencies that oversee them - each with its own particular goals, whether pertaining to food, industrial operations, or even to specific water sources and types - there can be gaps which is why a holistic approach is important in addressing water quality and safety.”
Water contamination remains a complex and evolving subject requiring such holistic action. Although there are many well-known contaminants that have been systematically monitored in water systems for years - such as various metals and nitrates - other “emerging” contaminants that were previously overlooked are now receiving more attention from bodies like the ISS.
Water Contaminants in the Context of Climate Change
Discussions of water contamination often focus on traditional culprits like lead and arsenic. Lead was once extensively used in plumbing infrastructures and fixtures, many of which are still in place and can contaminate the water supply5. Meanwhile, arsenic occurs naturally in soil and rocks and can dissolve completely into groundwater, either from existing deposits or the dumping of industrial waste, and linger in the environment for long periods of time.
However, these elements are just two of many possible water contaminants, which range from endocrine disruptors to highly radioactive metals. And newer risks are emerging in tandem with climate change. According to Lucentini, cyanotoxins in particular are a significant concern.
The Cyanotoxin Threat
Cyanotoxins are produced by cyanobacteria, colloquially known as blue-green algae. They can cause a wide variety of health conditions, including pneumonia and respiratory paralysis.
Cyanobacteria thrive in specific environmental conditions, under which they can reproduce exponentially. Warm, nutrient-rich water is ideal for cyanobacteria growth, underscoring the growing challenge brought about by climate change6. As the world’s bodies of water heat up, cyanobacteria could dominate certain ecosystems and their nearby water sources, requiring more accurate and proactive management.
Beyond the direct and readily apparent threat from cyanotoxins, other compounds may become more prevalent in water supplies as a result of increased activity from carbon-heavy industries like mining. Thallium, first identified as a concern in drinking water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s, stands out in this regard.7
The Dangers of Thallium and Radium
A post-transition metal, thallium is extensively used in the ever-expanding consumer electronics industry. Thallium production requires the mining of other metals like copper and lead, which contain trace amounts of the element that can then be refined.
The associated mining operations can contaminate water systems. Moreover, both thallium itself and the compounds based on it are unusually water soluble for heavy metals, enabling quick spread through ecosystems along with rapid accumulation in living organisms.8
The high toxicity of thallium even at low concentrations necessitates constant monitoring. To perform these functions for thallium as well as for radium - which contaminates water supplies for 170 million people in the U.S. alone9 - the ISS needed the best instrumental techniques available.
Improving Quality with Superior Instruments
Lucentini has expressed his appreciation for and satisfaction with the sensitivity, precision, and overall quality of the monitoring tools from PerkinElmer. More specifically, his team has been conducting semi-quantitative screenings using a NexION® ICP Mass Spectrometer (ICP-MS).
The NexION ICP-MS is a low-maintenance instrument with exceptional accuracy and uptime, offering the ability to measure high- and low-level elements simultaneously. These features make it perfect for reliably detecting both traditional and emerging contaminants in water, from nitrates emanating from fertilizers to dissolved thallium.
“This is a fundamental tool for protecting public health,” Lucentini said. “"We are developing climate resilient water management and health policies with cross-sector cooperation. This means studying and controlling the water supply chain from the source to its distribution to users."
Indeed, the ISS now relies on NexION ICP-MS for ensuring the quality and accreditation of water systems in Italy. Looking ahead, Lucentini and his colleagues are recommending an investigative screening using the NexION ICP-MS for all the water catchment areas in Italy, made up of approximately 50,000 distinct water sources.
PerkinElmer is a leader in delivering insights that contribute to healthier life, including the assurance of safer and more available drinking water. PerkinElmer solutions are trusted worldwide for their advanced detection capabilities and backed by our team’s deep expertise.