Laboratory proficiency testing

Independent proficiency tests are an important tool for laboratories to show evidence of their performance and to ensure that their analytical results can be trusted. The IAEA provides substantial support to Member States laboratories in the field of proficiency testing of environment-related analytical methods.

All areas of science and life that use measured data must be able to have confidence in the results received from laboratories. Participating in independent proficiency tests is a critical check to verify the performance of analytical laboratories. It is a mandatory requirement for the laboratories’ accreditation of analytical procedures according to the ISO 17025 standard. When implementing quality systems, analytical laboratories must also prove their measurement capability.

The IAEA encourages Member States laboratories to participate in such performance tests. It conducts proficiency tests with them, checking for radionuclides, trace elements and organic contaminants in environmental samples and for the stable isotope composition of natural products.

Many elements are naturally present in the environment in different isotopic forms. Carbon, for example, is present in the form of two stable isotopes, carbon-12 and carbon-13. Their ratio in plants, carbonate and carbon-dioxide provides information on natural biological and chemical processes and on the origin and fate of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Similarly, the existence of trace elements or organic pollutants yields information that is useful for protecting the terrestrial and marine environment.

For many laboratories, it is challenging to measure radionuclides at environmental level close to the limit of detection. Regular participation in proficiency tests, involving the analyses of freshwater, seawater, soil and biological samples, helps them increase their confidence and enables them to improve their analytical techniques. Annually, more than 500 laboratories worldwide participate in such tests organized by the IAEA.

Participation in these tests is free of charge. After the completion of a proficiency test, laboratories receive a report that summarises the results. This helps them to identify the reasons for any detected deviations and to improve their analytical performance.

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