A solid phase extraction method has been developed to separate and concentrate trace amounts of nickel, cobalt and copper ions from aqueous samples for the measurement by flame atomic absorption spectrometry. By the passage of aqueous samples through activated carbon modified by dithioxamide (rubeanic acid) (DTO), Ni(2+), Cu(2+) and Co(2+) ions adsorb quantitatively. The recoveries of analytes at pH 5.5 with 500 mg solid phase were greater than 95% without interference from alkaline, earth alkaline and some metal ions. The enrichment factor was 330. The detection limits by three sigma were 0.50 mu g L(-1) for copper, 0.75 mu g L(-1) for nickel and 0.80 mu g L(-1) for cobalt. The loading capacity was 0.56 mg g(-1) for Ni(2+), 0.50 mg g(-1) for Cu(2+) and 0.47 mg g(-1) for Co(2+). The presented procedure was applied to the determination of analytes in tap, river and sea waters, vegetable, soil and blood samples with successfully results (recoveries greater than 95%, R.S.D. lower than 2% for n = 3). (C) 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.