An environmental specimen bank (ESB) is an archive for samples that can be used to document and assess the quality of the environment in which we live. These specimens must be representative of a particular area, and be collected at regular intervals, to allow to monitor changes in the concentration of various (pollutant) substances over the course of time.

Furthermore, the specimens must be preserved in such a way that they can still be analysed many years after they were collected - either because new techniques have become available or because a new interest has arisen in substances that were not considered important in the past. The specimens must therefore be carefully prepared and stored under conditions that rule out any long-term alteration.

Specimens from typical ecosystems all over Germany, including coastal regions, urban settlements and mountainous terrain, are collected at regular intervals and stored in the German Environmental Specimen Bank. As well as specimens representing various levels of the food chain such as algae, mussels, fish, herring gulls, human specimens (blood and urine) are collected from student volunteers at four different sites.

All collected specimens are tested for the presence of a wide variety of chemical substances (including heavy metals) before being deep-frozen and consigned to storage. Low-temperature storage ensures that the specimens remain virtually unaltered, and can be taken out for analysis even many years later - for use in what is known as retrospective monitoring.

The ESB’s routine analysis programme not only involves measuring the concentration of specific substances but also evaluating the fitness of the sampled organisms on the basis of biometric factors, e.g. age, size, weight, state of health.

The Environmental Specimen Bank serves as a vital instrument of Germany’s environmental policy, because it not only provides documented evidence of the current state of the environment but also keeps past specimens available for verifying the effectiveness of policy measures and for investigating unanticipated later questions.