Update:?As I visit this page again on Feb 1 2017, I noticed that I wrote this article 5 years ago, back in 2012, when we first had the idea for our EnviroChain product. ?In the tech world, 5 years might as well be a century ago. ?A lot has happened in the tech world since 2012, not the least of which everyone is glued face down to their phone. ?And yet here we are in the environmental industry still using?yup?paper for CoC completions. ?Unfortunately there?has been minor movement to adopt smartphone-based CoC completions in our industry. ?Hard to believe but it’s true. Moving this rock uphill is no small feat, but we will keep on keeping on.

Jim Young

How much money do labs spend processing paper chain of custody (CoC) forms? This was a?question that I asked myself some time ago, and until recently, I merely guessed at it being a big wad of cash. Definitely in the millions of dollars per year. But how many millions?

After conducting some research and asking a few labs about their annual volume of work, we came up with a ballpark guesstimate as to how much money this amounts to in the USA. Key word here: guesstimate.

To calculate this value, we first started by finding out how many environmental labs currently exist in the USA. Next, we asked a small lab, a medium-sized lab, and a large lab what their average annual volume of sample shipments/sample delivery groups is. Then we asked a few labs to tell us what they felt was their internal cost to process a paper CoC. By process, what I mean is to manually transcribe the data printed on a paper CoC into the laboratory information management system (LIMS), factoring in the time spent correcting errors, if any. Finally, we came up with an approximation of what percentage of all of the labs in the US are considered small, medium, and large.


  • There are 800 environmental labs in the USA.
  • A typical small lab processes about 750 sample delivery groups (SDGs) per month, or about 9,000 per year.
  • A typical medium lab processes about 1,600-1,700 SDGs per month, or about 20,000 per year.
  • A typical large lab processes about 4,000-5,000 SDGs per month, or about 50,000 per year.
  • On average, it takes about 15-20 minutes to enter the data printed on a paper CoC into the LIMS (low volume CoCs take a couple of minutes to enter, but larger, multi-page CoCs take much longer to enter and cross-check for errors. We verified with several labs that 15-20 minutes is a good approximation).
  • A typical lab tech in charge of sample login costs the lab about $40k/year in payroll, benefits, taxes, etc.
  • Approximately 5% of all labs in the USA are large labs, 25% of labs are medium labs, and 70% are small labs (this was probably the biggest assumption we made that could result in inaccurate results, especially considering that some labs might be categorized as micro-labs with very low volumes).
  • Less than 10% of all CoCs are delivered electronically by data management software such as EQuIS, ESDat, Enviro-Data, and others (some labs have told us that as little as 3% of their CoCs are delivered electronically, so 10% is a conservative estimate).


  • Cost to enter a paper CoC = ($40,000/yr ? 2,088 hrs/yr) = $19.16/hr x 0.3 hrs = $5.75 = approximately $5
  • Total # of CoCs per year from small labs = 800 labs x 70% = 560 labs x 9,000 CoCs/yr = 5,040,000 CoCs
  • Total # of CoCs per year from medium labs = 800 labs x 25% = 200 labs x 20,000 CoCs/yr = 4,000,000 CoCs
  • Total # of CoCs per year from large labs = 800 labs x 5% = 40 labs x 50,000 CoCs/yr = 2,000,000 CoCs
  • Total # of CoCs per year from ALL labs = 5,040,000 + 4,000,000 + 2,000,000 = 11,040,000 CoCs
  • Total # of CoCs delivered by paper = 11,040,000 CoCs * 90% = 9,936,000 Paper CoCs
  • Total cost to enter all CoCs delivered by paper = 9,936,000 x $5/CoC = $49,680,000
  • Total cost to enter all CoCs delivered by paper, assuming $10/CoC and 95% delivered as paper CoCs = $104,880,000

Bottom Line: As an industry, we spend between $50 to $100 million per year to process paper CoCs

So there you have it. If we assume that each CoC costs $5 to enter manually into a LIMS, and we further assume that 90% of all CoCs are delivered via paper, then the cost to the environmental lab industry (and passed on to their clients) is about $50 million annually. If we instead assume that each CoC costs $10 to enter manually into a LIMS and 95% of all CoCs are delivered via paper, then the cost balloons to around $100 million annually. The latter is probably a more accurate estimate, considering the time involved for correcting data entry/transcription errors, not to mention the cost of running incorrect analytical methods because of a typo made during sample login.

What we could do with all of that money…

Fifty to one hundred million dollars to merely transpose information accurately from a sheet of paper into the lab?s LIMS is a lot of money for mindless data entry that could easily be done with computers. To me, this is a huge waste of money, talent, and time. There are 1,250 to 2,500 lab techs at $40K/lab tech/yr?that could be doing something other than tedious transcription of information from paper to LIMS. Imagine a reduction in labor costs of that magnitude. Could the savings be passed on to environmental consultants in the form of reduced method rates? Could the savings be passed on to the lab?s shareholders?

With so much new technology available today, in 2012, when everyone is face down in their phones checking email and their Facebook status, why aren?t we there yet? Why are we still predominantly using paper for this when almost everyone has a smartphone nowadays and databases can talk to each other via common data interchange formats like XML? Why not let smart database systems and software technology handle this tedious boring stuff and let chemists do what they were trained to do and do best, like data analysis and interpretation?

At Terraine, we feel that we have a solution for this huge waste of talent, money, and time, and it?s called EnviroChain. ?It?works over the web on any browser, and also has native apps for both iOS and Android. It?s free for field techs and affordable for labs, definitely much more affordable than spending gobs of money and time manually transcribing information from paper to LIMS, with typos and all. And the best part? It?s the future, and it?s coming, like it or not.

The genie is out of the bottle. Smartphone technology and standardized data interchange formats are here to stay, and there?s no turning back. So why not embrace the future now and lead instead of follow? After all, most companies? missions statements tout something along those lines…to provide the best value for its customers through innovation. ?EnviroChain?is one way to do just that.

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