By Nathalie H. (Dee) Perkins
“In the 1930s, when the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) was in its infant stage, two far-sighted men, Max Hecht and Claire Fellows, recognized the need for a more systematic approach to quality control of industrial waters—standard methods of sampling, testing and reporting. Hecht’s insistence that this system be sought with the help of ASTM indicates that even then he understood the great potential of voluntary consensus standardization.”
The above quote, said on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of ASTM Committee D-19 on Water, describes the beginning of an organization that contains roughly 400 members divided into 10 subcommittees, with more than 153 task groups within those subcommittees. The scope encompasses the study of water, promotion of knowledge thereof, and the standardization of terminology methods for:
- Sampling and analysis of water, waterborne materials and wastes, water-formed deposits and fluvial sediments,
- Surface water hydraulics and hydrologic measurements,
- The determination of the performance of materials or products used to modify water characteristics, and
- The determination of the corrosivity or deposit-forming properties of water.
Open to the public
Anyone interested in the activities of Committee D-19 is welcome to join. In addition to becoming a member of the committee at large, new members can elect to participate in one or more subcommittees and join any number of task groups.
You’ll find that Committee D-19 is a welcoming group of colleagues. I recall my first D-19 experience many years ago. As a way of learning how a standard moved through the approval process, the subcommittee chairman suggested that I start with the reapproval of an existing standard. My expertise lay in the field of atomic absorption. Therefore, he appointed me chairman for the task group on D-3919, the Standard Practice for Measuring Trace Elements in Water by Graphite Furnace Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometry. I can tell you that when I finally got the standard reapproved, I knew the approval process very, very well. Now, my experience is a bit extreme—rest assured, you won’t be pressed into any unfamiliar activity. Still, take this friendly warning that the development of standards is far from dull, and you’ll find yourself drawn into many interesting and thought-provoking discussions with colleagues that may whet your appetite for more involvement.
The development of a standard starts in a task group, usually composed of members (and possibly non-members) knowledgeable on the subject. After the task group feels it has an acceptable draft, it submits the draft for approval by the subcommittee under which the task group falls. The review involves a formal ballot sent to all members of the subcommittee. Once the subcommittee has approved the standard, it moves on to consideration by the entire committee. During the balloting process for committee approval, the standard is concurrently made available to every member of ASTM for comment and approval. This may sound like a very democratic process where the will of the majority rules, but it’s not. Let me explain.
Any standard published by ASTM is a consensus standard. This means everyone has approved the standard. In the balloting process described above, one negative vote brings the process to a halt until the cause for the negative vote has been addressed and resolved. As the standard moves through the process, an increasingly larger group of people has an opportunity to review the standard and can stop the process by casting a negative vote. We are as sensitive to negative comments received from non-committee members as members. (I should point out that to have a negative vote considered valid, the voter must include a rationale for the negative vote as well as suggested changes.)
You might say that, if this is the case, then a company or interest group could vote in such a way as to make approval of a truly consensus standard virtually impossible. This isn’t the case. Only one member from each organization or company can have an “official” vote. At key points in the approval process such as finding a negative vote non-persuasive, only the “official” votes count. Committee members are also classified as producers, users or general interest. The idea behind classification is again to ensure a balance among the various interest groups so that all standards reflect a consensus among the parties.
All on the same page
Anyone reading about the ASTM development and approval process for the first time might conclude that it’s impossible to get everyone to agree. I can assure you that although I have at times thought a particular standard would never reach consensus, I’ve been wrong every time. By working together, we’ve been able to resolve even the most contentious issues.
The biggest challenge faced by Committee D-19 is making the process timely. Most of the work in developing the standards and resolving the negatives is done during two annual meetings—one in January and June. But as web-based technology has become accessible to most members, we’re implementing basic changes in the way business is done. First, we have the ability to work on a standard between meetings through web-based Interactive Standards Development Forums on the ASTM website. Second, when revising an existing standard, the availability of an electronic version of the standard has improved the readability of the revisions. Finally, we’re now able to vote electronically, which allows more opportunities to issue ballots between meetings.
No matter how much we attempt to streamline the process, we’re adamant that the technical validity of our standards not be impacted. It takes time to plan and run the inter-laboratory testing necessary to produce statistically valid calculations of precision and bias for a test method.
In Committee D-19, there are numerous members associated with various government agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Often, meetings become the neutral ground on which to work out differences between the regulators (USEPA) and the regulated (industry). On an international scale, the committee serves as the U.S. Technical Advisory Group for ISO Technical Committee 147 on Water Quality, which prepares water quality standards similar to ASTM except the committee is multinational. The United States is only one of many countries represented in ISO TC 147. We recently hosted a meeting of TC 147. It included over 130 representatives from 17 nations. It was interesting to watch other processes, which in many ways mirrored ASTM’s but were also very different.
Types of standards
The standards written by Committee D-19 fall into three groups—test methods, practices and guides. Test methods produce an analytical result. Before a standard of this type can receive approval, it must have a precision and bias statement developed as the result of a round-robin input from among at least six independent laboratories. Practices don’t produce an analytical result but give instructions on how to perform one or more specific operations. Guides, as their name implies, offer direction on a wide variety of issues.
Typical examples include:
- Test Method: D 3867, Nitrite—Nitrate in Water
- Practice: D 4515, Estimation of Holding Time for Water Samples Containing Organic Constituents
- Guide: D 5463, Use of Test Kits to Measure Inorganic Constituents in Water
In 2007, Committee D-19 will celebrate its 75th anniversary. We will continue to be a dynamic organization. Our focus may change as research and technology impact how we perceive and use water in all its varied forms, but one constant will remain. Whatever standards we produce, they’ll be scientifically valid and consensus-based.
About the author
Nathalie H. (Dee) Perkins is business development manager for The Bionetics Corp., of Newport News, Va. Perkins is chairman of ASTM Committee D-19 on Water. She previously held positions as project manager with Burns & Roe Service Corp. and as president and chief operating officer of Diversified Technology and Services, of Virginia. She graduated from the University of Richmond with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in analytical chemistry. Perkins can be reached at (757) 873-0900 ext. 237, (757) 873-7633 (fax) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org