Paper Chain of Custody Forms in the Environmental Industry: How is this still a thing?


While the entire universe has mostly moved on from paper and is using smartphones for nearly everything, the environmental industry still swears by paper for chain of custody control.

As John Oliver says in his HBO show Last Week Tonight, “How is this still a thing?”

Everyone, young and old, has moved on…

My daughter creates Vines nearly every day. Pretty good ones, actually. She’s 10.

My mom (Yemila Young) uses Facebook, text, WhatsApp, and Skype every day. She’s also buying shit on Amazon, Gap, Nordstrom, and other online shops on a weekly basis. She’s 80 and barely speaks a lick of English.

This is not anything new or eye opening. Everyone has iPhones, Android phones, Blackberry phones, or Windows phones in their pockets. Everyone. In. The. Entire. World.

Except the environmental lab and consulting industry…

So how is it that the environmental industry — in particular the environmental lab and consulting business — in 2015 — still mostly uses multi-part paper for chain of custody control? And by mostly, I mean more than 90% of the millions of CoCs produced and sent to environmental labs annually.

Excuses, mostly

I’ve been preaching this now for nearly 8 years. Eight years trying to convince people in this sector of the benefits of software technology for replacement of paper CoCs. The backlash I’ve experienced — while initially staggering — has in recent years slowed a bit. But the pushback is still there.

What I mostly hear today are theoretical bullshit arguments about the integrity of the chain of custody itself (about invalidating the sample results because of some sort of possible breach), about the inability to adopt electronic data into their LIMS, about upsetting or slowing down the current sample login workflow, and about upsetting their clients, who happen to be the environmental consulting firms.

Some counter-arguments to their excuses:

  • Electronic signatures were adopted by the Clinton administration fifteen years ago! Before Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Youtube, GMail, Google Apps, the iPhone and a huge pile of inventions.
  • Hacking into any system is of course plausible. But anyone can forge someone’s signature on a piece of paper too. Does this stop people from signing paper checks and forms?
  • Most relatively modern database systems, even old LIMS systems, can accept data provided in XML format via API requests or other automated import mechanisms with zero human intervention. To argue that your LIMS can’t handle a data input feed securely in 2015 is equivalent to saying that your system is completely isolated from the internet. It’s not.
  • If CoC data is inserted automatically into the LIMS, how does this slow down the sample login workflow? Doesn’t it do the opposite of that and speed it up, since there’s less keyboard entry (and typos) by the sample login folks?
  • If field techs spend less time in the field completing their work because of smartphone use, how is this even an argument?

An elegant solution

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to solve this problem. Almost five years developing one particular software tool. Our resulting product is EnviroChain. Like any software dev effort, it’s had its awful moments over the course of its development. But finally, after nearly 5 years in the making, I’m quite proud of what we have accomplished and where we think our efforts in this space will lead us to:

  • web app for sample generators
  • separate web app for laboratories
  • native iPhone and Android apps for sample generators that run in offline mode and sync when internet connectivity is available
  • field data capture including Florida ADaPT
  • photo and GPS location capture
  • grafiti-style signatures using your finger plus e-signature data
  • customizeable methods and containers list controllable by the lab
  • QR codes on labels
  • email notification for courier pickup
  • automated email delivery of CoCs in PDF format and importable EDDs
  • published APIs for LIMS integration for virtually any data captured in the database
  • tight integration with Promium ElementLIMS
  • private label/white-labeling feature for laboratories
  • and more

Check it out here: http://promium.com/envirochain

If you are having to deal with an inefficient paper process in your industry, and would like to discuss possible ideas, feel free to contact me: jim [at] terraine [dot] com or leave a comment here.