# 40 CFR Appendix B to Part 136 - Definition and Procedure for the Determination of the Method Detection Limit - Revision 2

The method detection limit (MDL) is defined as the minimum measured concentration of a substance that can be reported with 99% confidence that the measured concentration is distinguishable from method blank results.

(1) The MDL procedure is designed to be a straightforward technique for estimation of the detection limit for a broad variety of physical and chemical methods. The procedure requires a complete, specific, and well-defined analytical method. It is essential that all sample processing steps used by the laboratory be included in the determination of the method detection limit.

(2) The MDL procedure is not applicable to methods that do not produce results with a continuous distribution, such as, but not limited to, methods for whole effluent toxicity, presence/absence methods, and microbiological methods that involve counting colonies. The MDL procedure also is not applicable to measurements such as, but not limited to, biochemical oxygen demand, color, pH, specific conductance, many titration methods, and any method where low-level spiked samples cannot be prepared. Except as described in the addendum, for the purposes of this procedure, “spiked samples” are prepared from a clean reference matrix, such as reagent water, spiked with a known and consistent quantity of the analyte. MDL determinations using spiked samples may not be appropriate for all gravimetric methods (e.g., residue or total suspended solids), but an MDL based on method blanks can be determined in such instances.

Estimate the initial MDL using one or more of the following:

(a) The mean determined concentration plus three times the standard deviation of a set of method blanks.

(b) The concentration value that corresponds to an instrument signal-to-noise ratio in the range of 3 to 5.

(c) The concentration equivalent to three times the standard deviation of replicate instrumental measurements of spiked blanks.

(d) That region of the calibration where there is a significant change in sensitivity, i.e., a break in the slope of the calibration.

(e) Instrumental limitations.

(f) Previously determined MDL.

It is recognized that the experience of the analyst is important to this process. However, the analyst should include some or all of the above considerations in the initial estimate of the MDL.

(2) Determine the initial MDL.

The Initial MDL is used when the laboratory does not have adequate data to perform the Ongoing Annual Verification specified in Section (4), typically when a new method is implemented or if a method was rarely used in the last 24 months.

Select a spiking level, typically 2 - 10 times the estimated MDL in Section 1. Spiking levels in excess of 10 times the estimated detection limit may be required for analytes with very poor recovery (e.g., for an analyte with 10% recovery, spiked at 100 micrograms/L, with mean recovery of 10 micrograms/L; the calculated MDL may be around 3 micrograms/L. Therefore, in this example, the spiking level would be 33 times the MDL, but spiking lower may result in no recovery at all).

Process a minimum of seven spiked samples and seven method blank samples through all steps of the method. The samples used for the MDL must be prepared in at least three batches on three separate calendar dates and analyzed on three separate calendar dates. (Preparation and analysis may be on the same day.) Existing data may be used, if compliant with the requirements for at least three batches, and generated within the last twenty four months. The most recent available data for method blanks and spiked samples must be used. Statistical outlier removal procedures should not be used to remove data for the initial MDL determination, since the total number of observations is small and the purpose of the MDL procedure is to capture routine method variability. However, documented instances of gross failures (e.g., instrument malfunctions, mislabeled samples, cracked vials) may be excluded from the calculations, provided that at least seven spiked samples and seven method blanks are available. (The rationale for removal of specific outliers must be documented and maintained on file with the results of the MDL determination.)

(i) If there are multiple instruments that will be assigned the same MDL, then the sample analyses must be distributed across all of the instruments.

(ii) A minimum of two spiked samples and two method blank samples prepared and analyzed on different calendar dates is required for each instrument. Each analytical batch may contain one spiked sample and one method blank sample run together. A spiked sample and a method blank sample may be analyzed in the same batch, but are not required to be.

(iii) The same prepared extract may be analyzed on multiple instruments so long as the minimum requirement of seven preparations in at least three separate batches is maintained.

Evaluate the spiking level: If any result for any individual analyte from the spiked samples does not meet the method qualitative identification criteria or does not provide a numerical result greater than zero, then repeat the spiked samples at a higher concentration. (Qualitative identification criteria are a set of rules or guidelines for establishing the identification or presence of an analyte using a measurement system. Qualitative identification does not ensure that quantitative results for the analyte can be obtained.)

Make all computations as specified in the analytical method and express the final results in the method-specified reporting units.

(i) Calculate the sample standard deviation (S) of the replicate spiked sample measurements and the sample standard deviation of the replicate method blank measurements from all instruments to which the MDL will be applied.

(ii) Compute the MDLs (the MDL based on spiked samples) as follows:

(iii) Compute the MDLb (the MDL based on method blanks) as follows:

(A) If none of the method blanks give numerical results for an individual analyte, the MDLb does not apply. A numerical result includes both positive and negative results, including results below the current MDL, but not results of “ND” (not detected) commonly observed when a peak is not present in chromatographic analysis.

(B) If some (but not all) of the method blanks for an individual analyte give numerical results, set the MDLb equal to the highest method blank result. If more than 100 method blanks are available, set MDLb to the level that is no less than the 99th percentile of the method blank results. For “n” method blanks where n ≥ 100, sort the method blanks in rank order. The (n * 0.99) ranked method blank result (round to the nearest whole number) is the MDLb. For example, to find MDLb from a set of 164 method blanks where the highest ranked method blank results are . . . 1.5, 1.7, 1.9, 5.0, and 10, then 164 × 0.99 = 162.36 which rounds to the 162nd method blank result. Therefore, MDLb is 1.9 for n = 164 (10 is the 164th result, 5.0 is the 163rd result, and 1.9 is the 162nd result). Alternatively, you may use spreadsheet algorithms to calculate the 99th percentile to interpolate between the ranks more precisely.

(C) If all of the method blanks for an individual analyte give numerical results, then calculate the MDLb as:

If 100 or more method blanks are available, as an option, MDLb may be set to the concentration that is greater than or equal to the 99th percentile of the method blank results, as described in Section (2)(d)(iii)(B).

Select the greater of MDLs or MDLb as the initial MDL.

(3) Ongoing Data Collection.

During any quarter in which samples are being analyzed, prepare and analyze a minimum of two spiked samples on each instrument, in separate batches, using the same spiking concentration used in Section 2. If any analytes are repeatedly not detected in the quarterly spiked sample analyses, or do not meet the qualitative identification criteria of the method (see section 2(c) of this procedure), then this is an indication that the spiking level is not high enough and should be adjusted upward. Note that it is not necessary to analyze additional method blanks together with the spiked samples, the method blank population should include all of the routine method blanks analyzed with each batch during the course of sample analysis.

Ensure that at least seven spiked samples and seven method blanks are completed for the annual verification. If only one instrument is in use, a minimum of seven spikes are still required, but they may be drawn from the last two years of data collection.

At least once per year, re-evaluate the spiking level.

(i) If more than 5% of the spiked samples do not return positive numerical results that meet all method qualitative identification criteria, then the spiking level must be increased and the initial MDL re-determined following the procedure in section 2.

(ii) [Reserved]

If the method is altered in a way that can be reasonably expected to change its sensitivity, then re-determine the initial MDL according to section 2, and the restart the ongoing data collection.

If a new instrument is added to a group of instruments whose data are being pooled to create a single MDL, analyze a minimum of two spiked replicates and two method blank replicates on the new instrument. If both method blank results are below the existing MDL, then the existing MDLb is validated. Combine the new spiked sample results to the existing spiked sample results and recalculate the MDLs as in Section 4. If the recalculated MDLs does not vary by more than the factor specified in section 4(f) of this procedure, then the existing MDLs is validated. If either of these two conditions is not met, then calculate a new MDL following the instructions in section 2.

(4) Ongoing Annual Verification.

At least once every thirteen months, re-calculate MDLs and MDLb from the collected spiked samples and method blank results using the equations in section 2.

Include data generated within the last twenty four months, but only data with the same spiking level. Only documented instances of gross failures (e.g., instrument malfunctions, mislabeled samples, cracked vials) may be excluded from the calculations. (The rationale for removal of specific outliers must be documented and maintained on file with the results of the MDL determination.) If the laboratory believes the sensitivity of the method has changed significantly, then the most recent data available may be used, maintaining compliance with the requirement for at least seven replicates in three separate batches on three separate days (see section 2b).

Include the initial MDL spiked samples, if the data were generated within twenty four months.

Only use data associated with acceptable calibrations and batch QC. Include all routine data, with the exception of batches that are rejected and the associated samples reanalyzed. If the method has been altered in a way that can be reasonably expected to change its sensitivity, then use only data collected after the change.

Ideally, use all method blank results from the last 24 months for the MDLb calculation. The laboratory has the option to use only the last six months of method blank data or the fifty most recent method blanks, whichever criteria yields the greater number of method blanks.

The verified MDL is the greater of the MDLs or MDLb. If the verified MDL is within 0.5 to 2.0 times the existing MDL, and fewer than 3% of the method blank results (for the individual analyte) have numerical results above the existing MDL, then the existing MDL may optionally be left unchanged. Otherwise, adjust the MDL to the new verification MDL. (The range of 0.5 to 2.0 approximates the 95th percentile confidence interval for the initial MDL determination with six degrees of freedom.)

The MDL may be determined in a specific sample matrix as well as in reagent water.

(1) Analyze the sample matrix to determine the native (background) concentration of the analyte(s) of interest.

If the response for the native concentration is at a signal-to-noise ratio of approximately 5-20, determine the matrix-specific MDL according to Section 2 but without spiking additional analyte.

(3) Calculate MDLb using the method blanks, not the sample matrix.

(4) If the signal-to-noise ratio is less than 5, then the analyte(s) should be spiked into the sample matrix to obtain a concentration that will give results with a signal-to-noise ratio of approximately 10-20.

(5) If the analytes(s) of interest have signal-to-noise ratio(s) greater than approximately 20, then the resulting MDL is likely to be biased high.

Table 1 - Single-Tailed 99th Percentile t Statistic

Number of replicates | Degrees of freedom
(n−1) |
t (n−1, 0.99) |
---|---|---|

7 | 6 | 3.143 |

8 | 7 | 2.998 |

9 | 8 | 2.896 |

10 | 9 | 2.821 |

11 | 10 | 2.764 |

16 | 15 | 2.602 |

21 | 20 | 2.528 |

26 | 25 | 2.485 |

31 | 30 | 2.457 |

32 | 31 | 2.453 |

48 | 47 | 2.408 |

50 | 49 | 2.405 |

61 | 60 | 2.390 |

64 | 63 | 2.387 |

80 | 79 | 2.374 |

96 | 95 | 2.366 |

100 | 99 | 2.365 |

The analytical method used must be specifically identified by number or title and the MDL for each analyte expressed in the appropriate method reporting units. Data and calculations used to establish the MDL must be able to be reconstructed upon request. The sample matrix used to determine the MDL must also be identified with MDL value. Document the mean spiked and recovered analyte levels with the MDL. The rationale for removal of outlier results, if any, must be documented and maintained on file with the results of the MDL determination.