The need for chemical standards is skyrocketing, as a health-conscious public clamors to learn exactly how many parts-per-billion of pesticides are in their veggies, PCBs in their fish, dioxins in their milk, antibiotics in their burgers, cholesterol in their blood, and drugs in their employees' urine. But like a diner unable to judge the quality of a French restaurant because she's never sampled the finest French cuisine, analytical chemists charged with the mounting demand to establish trace components need yardsticks by which to measure their presence.

Helping to meet this demand is the United States Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and about 30 private vendors. For these vendors, a booming business in standard materials has emerged because NIST is unable to supply everything; moreover, not everyone needs the utmost precision that NIST applies.

The standards business has its share of controversy. Recently, the Environmental Protection...

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