Predicting the Mass Spectra of Environmental Pollutants Using Computational Chemistry: A Case Study and Critical Evaluation Academic Article uri icon

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  • Organic pollutants can be identified by comparing their electron ionization (EI) mass spectra with those in libraries or obtained from authentic standards. Nevertheless, libraries are incomplete; standards may be unavailable or too costly, or their synthesis may be too time-consuming. This study evaluates the performance of quantum chemical electron ionization mass spectrometry (QCEIMS) vis-à-vis competitive fragmentation modeling (CFM) for suspect screening and unknown identification. EI mass spectra of 35 compounds, including halogenated organics, organophosphorus flame retardants (OPFRs), and disinfection byproducts were computed. Computational results were compared with EI mass spectra compiled in the NIST Library as well as collision-induced dissociation (CID) mass spectra obtained from radical cations M•+ generated by charge-exchange atmospheric pressure chemical ionization (APCI). The results indicate that QCEIMS performs equivalently or better than CFM. Average match factors between computed and experimental (NIST) EI mass spectra were 656 vs 503 for the halogenated organics, and on average, QCEIMS predicted 55% of the products generated by CID vs 17% predicted by CFM. QCEIMS predicted 37% of the OPFR CID products whereas CFM predicted 29%. QCEIMS performed comparably to a commercial combinatorial fragmentation method for suspect screening of a dust sample, identifying 19/20 targets. Examples of unknown pollutants, whose reference spectra were unavailable at the time of discovery, are also presented. The computational results suggest that QCEIMS can help guide the analyst in obtaining authentic standards and raise the possibility that, with advances in computing, an unknown may eventually be confirmed in hours as opposed to the days or months required to obtain authentic standards.


  • Schreckenbach, Sophia A
  • Anderson, James SM
  • Koopman, Jeroen
  • Grimme, Stefan
  • Simpson, Myrna J
  • Jobst, Karl

publication date

  • June 2, 2021