I think we can all say there has been a time where we have come into the room and screamed STOP!!! As a child or significant other is about to put something in the water that they shouldn’t. I have been known to nearly drop kick my mother out of the room when she went to put her perfume on stood next to the tank! That’s the easy side of contamination, unfortunately not all contamination is that obvious.
So, what is contamination?
“The action or state of making or being made impure by polluting or poisoning.”
Oxford English Dictionary
Why should we be worried about contamination?
Our aquariums no matter how big they are have tiny volumes when compared to the oceans. This small volume leaves very little room for error when it comes to the introduction of contaminants. For example a rusty nail from an old ship will have practically no impact on the overall health of the ocean, but that same nail would have a massive impact in a closed aquarium. With that in mind we should be extra careful and considerate as to what we allow to come in contact with our precious water.
What different types of contamination should we look out for?
Everything that comes in contact with our aquarium water is a possible source of contamination. From the glass used to make the aquarium, to the rock and substrate, even the very water itself can all contain contaminants when using substandard salts. But with conscious control of what we use we can easily negate most problems.
We should be suspicious and sceptical, after all, our pride and joy’s lives are at stake here..
Manufacturing Contamination (materials)
This means contamination from manufacturing processes where unwanted elements are left over on or in the products due to the way they are made. A good example of this is excess Tin often found on ICP reports from new systems. It is thought that the excess Tin comes from the process of manufacturing “Float Glass”. The glass pane is floated on a bed of molten Tin which leaves a thin coating and creates a “Tin side” to the new glass. Ideally all tanks should be made with the Tin side facing out however this is often not the case. The Tin does not last in the system for long and a few water changes soon removes it but it could explain why some new systems struggle especially with SPS corals.
Other examples would be equipment being constructed of materials not suited for long term exposure to salt water for example cheap algae scrapers, metal hose clamps, and return pumps leaching Tungsten to name a few..
Manufacturing Contamination (ingredients)
When manufacturers create products such as Trace supplements often obtaining ultra pure ingredients was deemed too expensive and before Triton there was no way for the aquarist to test what was actually in the product anyway. They could simply say “Trace Mix” on the bottle and that would be that. There was no need to explain what exactly was in it as aquarists would simply add it and hope for the best. If it did contain elements that we didn’t want then they always had the good old water change as a get out of jail free card, manufactures could effectively rely on the fact that customers would be changing their water regularly so that would prevent any accumulations becoming a problem. That is of course presuming that the water changes themselves are not the source for contamination with many salt mixes stating they come with added trace elements when in fact the traces are actually just contaminants from the main ingredients.
Triton of course changed that way of thinking. When we removed their safety net of a routine water change then all of a sudden aquarists wanted to become consciously aware of what was in these mysterious liquids… Take Strontium for example, a very important element used by stoney corals to build their skeletons. Prior to Triton Reagents most Strontium supplements came with added Barium, not as a bonus element but rather a contaminant due to pure Strontium being relatively expensive. Triton Reagents are different, if it says Strontium on the bottle then that is all it is, nothing else.
This is a big one and often overlooked. We’ve all heard the horror stories of about the wife who decided to use half a tin of hairspray while stood next to the tank, or the one about the air fresheners being too close. These are easy and obvious offenders. Some less obvious sources could be things that you think aren’t touching the water so can’t be to blame. Water acts like a magnet for particles, any dust passing by will immediately be sucked onto the surface and into the water column.
My personal experience with this was with some corroding hinges on my cabinet. I presumed as they were away to one side and not directly above the water that there was no way they would be actually affecting my aquarium. However the ICP started to see rising elements such as Copper, Nickel, Zinc and Iron so I knew something metal was corroding. I decided to look at the hinges a bit closer and held a piece of white tissue paper next to it while I opened and closed it, it was then I could see a super fine dust coming from the hinge and even some of it drifting over to the water surface. This will have been happening every time I opened and closed the door (which is a lot). I decided to sample some of the dust so added a tiny amount to RO/DI and sent it in. No surprises for guessing which elements were elevated! I swiftly changed out the hinges and covered the new ones in a protective coating, problem solved…..
Some other environmental factors could be things like hand creams (often containing Zinc) or other cosmetic products, even the room itself with the paint used on the walls.
Environmental should also include biological contamination such as external carbon sources (pollen for example) or other organics but for the purpose of this blog we will leave that out as there is currently no way of testing for these.
So what should we be doing to prevent contamination?
Be aware. Presume that unless you know otherwise any product that you add to your aquarium could be a potential source of contamination.
If you are unsure test, you have the tools at your disposal to test any products for purity.
Think that if a product is cheap then it is normally for a reason… purity costs more, an unfortunate fact.
Share your findings with the community, avoid anecdotal evidence but if you have proved a contamination source then share your experience and knowledge.
We could all do with being a little bit paranoid! Your tank will thank you for it……..