Archive for the 'Environmental Health' category

West Virginia’s Spill and the Importance of Laboratories

Mar 04 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Megan Weil Latshaw, Director, Environmental Health Programs

Living in the United States usually means we can expect clean water every time we turn on our tap.[1] But for over a week, hundreds of thousands of West Virginians were unable to use their water for drinking, bathing, showering or even brushing their teeth.[2]

The recent Elk River story led to many questions about chemicals policy in the US. For example, the New York Times called into question WV’s regulatory framework and National Public Radio discussed the lack of oversight of chemical storage facilities. It also drew attention to our lack of knowledge about these chemicals:

  • Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer, highlighted how little we know about chemicals in commerce.
  • The Director of the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) pointed out how little they knew about the original chemical of concern, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol or MCHM.

West Virginia’s Spill and  the Importance of Laboratories | www.aphlblog.orgBut despite all the news around the spill, few articles mentioned the role of laboratories. The West Virginia Public Health Laboratory was one of the labs that stepped up to handle the surge in water samples. Environmental chemists worked around the clock and chemists from other parts of the laboratory were pulled in to help. They adapted a CDC method that allowed them to report results three times faster than the other responding laboratories. The end is not quite yet in sight: the lab continues testing tap water samples due to concerns about the lingering odor associated with the chemical.

Here at APHL we’re proud of the public health laboratories who have built capability & capacity to detect chemical contaminants, not only in water, but also in people. These public laboratories, whose sole mission is to protect the public’s health, are prepared to operate 24/7 in order to do so.

We’re also proud of the progress being made by federal agencies to build laboratory networks across the country, able to handle just such emergencies (such as EPA’s Water Laboratory Alliance and the Laboratory Response Network for Chemical Threats funded by CDC). There still remains a lot of work to be done though:

  • Barriers to activating these networks remain. We need additional funding to increase their visibility, broad usefulness & efficiency.
  • Neither of these networks provides funding to detect radiological agents.
  • Electronic exchange of data between laboratories, crucial during emergencies for prompt decision making, remains highly inefficient.
  • Due to funding cuts, laboratories struggle to maintain well-trained personnel and aging equipment.


[1] As NPR recently pointed out though, we only monitor public water supplies for ‘known’ contaminants. What about all those ‘unknowns’ like pharmaceuticals or personal care products that get washed down the drain or flushed? APHL called on EPA to work with states on additional drinking water contaminant monitoring systems.

[2] The Wall Street Journal published a timeline of the spill and response.

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Integrating Biomonitoring with CDC’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program

Feb 26 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health

This blog post is part of a biomonitoring series.

In 2011, CDC’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program formed a Biomonitoring Task Force, composed of grantees from the agency’s Tracking Network. Members of the new task force were asked to find out what biomonitoring data exists in states and, where possible, to add it to the national tracking network’s data portal.

“There is an important and growing partnership between CDC-funded state tracking programs and laboratories interested in biomonitoring,” said Jean Johnson, PhD, supervisor, environmental epidemiology unit, and director, environmental public health tracking and biomonitoring program, at the Minnesota Department of Health. “CDC tracking programs bring the environmental epidemiology piece that is a critical resource for state laboratories interested in population-based biomonitoring.”

Integrating Biomonitoring with CDC’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program |

Identifying Environmental Health Surveillance as a Priority

The Tracking Network was established in response to a 2000 Pew Environmental Health Commission Report, which revealed a fragmented surveillance system. Information gaps and data silos prevented scientists from connecting data on environmental exposures with chronic disease data.

“The consensus was that, if we created surveillance for environmental health, we would do a much better job connecting environmental hazards and exposures to Americans’ health,” said Johnson.

In 2002, CDC funded the new surveillance program that is typically referred to as the Tracking Network. Sixteen states were brought on board to systemically collect, analyze and disseminate environmental public health data. Since that time the network has grown to 23 states plus New York City and several academic partners. The participating states pull the data together by identifying and exploring existing data sources. Epidemiologists analyze the data for trends and spatial patterns. The academic partners then take a research angle, examining the data for connections.

There are approximately 15 content areas tracked in each state, including air quality, drinking water, chronic disease from cancer registries, heart disease, and carbon monoxide poisoning. In most states, children’s blood lead levels are the only biomonitoring data that have been tracked systematically, although federal support for blood lead surveillance in the states was recently cut.

All of this data is available to the public on web portals. “That’s an important part of tracking too because it’s not just states that use the data,” said Johnson. “Universities, advocate organizations, community and local public health folks: if it’s public data, it’s accessible to everyone who wants to use it.”

The participating states all agree to track certain things so that the network is supplied with nationally consistent data and measures. Teams from the states first identify what a consistent measure is, and then provide the data to CDC and post it to the public portals. Yet states are also free to add supplemental information that may be particularly relevant to their region.

“This program has really helped build significant environmental epidemiology capacity in state health departments,” said Johnson.

Taking Environmental Health Surveillance a Step Further by Adding Biomonitoring Data

In 2011, network participants decided to investigate whether any of the biomonitoring work conducted in the states was consistent enough to allow for national tracking of the data. The Biomonitoring Task Force was established, and it developed and sent a survey to the 23 states in the tracking program. The survey asked the states to review the past 10 years of available biomonitoring data to identify what analytes were tested, how, on what populations and with what kind of funding. Essentially the network was searching for consistencies that would make a particular chemical (in populations) trackable on a national platform.

In the survey, biomonitoring testing was split into five categories:

1) Mandatory report data: some states require hospitals or clinics to report poisonings or chemical exposures

2) Population-based survey: surveillance to measure spatial or temporal differences in population exposure or to evaluate the efficacy of public health actions to reduce exposure (for example, any state programs similar to NHANES)

3) Targeted public health investigation: in response to community health concerns about contamination or a disease cluster (drinking water contamination)

4) Rapid response: in response to an emergency situation, such as a chemical emergency in a school or community

5) Support of academic research project: providing laboratory support to academic institutions

Overall the results (see slide image below) reveal that there is very limited consistency among state biomonitoring programs, which would make it difficult to enter the data into a national tracking program. Very few of the studies use probability-based population sampling methods, meaning that researchers cannot generalize the results outside of the tested group.

Johnson pointed out that each state likely has more biomonitoring data than was identified in the survey since a lot of work never gets reported or published in peer-reviewed journals.

The survey results made it clear that the state tracking grantees want to build their biomonitoring programs. However, there is a significant lack of sustained resources to support state biomonitoring work.

The next activity on the task force’s agenda is to write a white paper to describe the current limitations posed by the existing data, and recommend strategies to help create consistent data across the country.

In the years to come, as states develop their biomonitoring programs, it will be important to work with the tracking network so that this valuable data is accessible and useful to anyone who needs it.

Without biomonitoring, public health practitioners face challenges in understanding whether environmental contaminants are actually being absorbed into people’s bodies. Given improvements in technology, the capabilities and expertise that exist in public health laboratories, and the increasing demand from the public for more information about chemical exposures, biomonitoring is poised to become an integral component of public health practice.

To learn more about biomonitoring, check out some of APHL’s Biomonitoring Resources:

Stay tuned for our soon-to-be-unveiled Meeting Community Needs page and of course, let us know if you have any feedback or suggestions.  

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Chemical Exposure Study in NY is Innovative and Promising

Each year, about 250,000 babies are born in New York. Shortly after each birth, hospital staff pricks the baby’s heel, capturing and drying several drops of blood on a special filter paper known as a Guthrie card. The blood sample is then sent to the state’s newborn screening program at the Wadsworth Center, where it is screened for 45 different genetic, endocrine or metabolic disorders. The speed of the screening process and confirmatory diagnostic testing allows at-risk infants access to prompt and often life-saving medical care.

Chemical Exposure Study in NY is Innovative and Promising |

Some of the remaining collection cards, which are held under highly secure conditions without any identifying links, are now being utilized in a fully consented biomonitoring study funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The study will examine the link between environmental chemical exposures, childhood development and long-term health outcomes.

Biomonitoring is the direct measurement of natural and synthetic chemicals in a person’s body via blood, urine or breast milk samples. In this study, called Upstate Kids, 3,800 children are enrolled from birth and followed through the age of three. The study is approved by the Department of Health’s Institutional Review Board and is being performed with the full consent of the parents of enrolled children. It is a collaboration of the Wadsworth Center and the Center for Environmental Health within the New York State Department of Health and the State University at Albany, School of Public Health.

How is it possible to use stored collection cards for this purpose? According to Kenneth Aldous, PhD, director of the Environmental Health Sciences Division at Wadsworth, biomonitoring is experiencing a rapid expansion in capability due to “the advancement in computers and analytical instrumentation, which has allowed us to measure samples more quickly, using smaller and smaller volumes of human body fluids.”

It is natural that scientists who study the levels of chemicals in people, tracking the rise and fall of certain toxins through the years, would recognize the value of stored newborn blood samples. Dr. Kurunthachalam Kannan, a scientist at Wadsworth working on this study, noted that, “With the help of the parents, we can link the baby’s weight, head circumference, height, and other demographic information to health outcomes of babies. By gaining permission to extend the study once the children reach adulthood, we may also be able to monitor them over their lifetimes.”

The stumbling block for researchers has been that the dried spots on the cards are very tiny, far beyond what they consider a “smaller volume” sample. Is it even possible to create a sensitive enough assay to allow researchers to use the small volumes contained in these residual collection cards? Wadsworth experts now believe that it is.

Using a technique that involves liquid-liquid extraction and high performance liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry method, Kannan and his colleagues have looked for certain endocrine disrupting environmental chemicals (polybrominated diphenyl ethers [PBDEs], perfluorooctane sulfonate [PFOS], perfluorooctanoic acid [PFOA] and bisphenol A [BPA]) in both whole blood samples and dried blood spots. Although they are still trying to determine how to get an accurate measurement of the sample’s exact volume, the results from the collection cards have been remarkably accurate in comparison to the whole blood samples.

In an interesting quirk of the study, the researchers realized they also needed to understand the specific amount of background chemical contamination present on the card. According to Kannan, it matters how the nurses handle the card at the hospital, how it is packaged and mailed, and even how long it is held during the newborn screening process. To evaluate this ambient contamination, laboratorians used a blank punch, reasoning that this spot (taken from an area of the card without any blood) would experience the same contamination as the dried blood, thus allowing scientists to correct for potential contaminations that happened in the hospital after birth compared to chemical exposure that occurred through the placenta.

The success of this study may open the door for biomonitoring programs to study all kinds of childhood exposure to chemicals. In the past, scientists were only able to make educated guesses on chemical exposure via a complex modeling process. Measuring the chemicals directly in people provides valuable information about the sources of chemical exposure and potential long-term health effects. As further research is done, it may also be possible to test for biomarkers for developmental concerns.

In addition to blood samples drawn at birth, and regular motor and social development updates, this study is also gathering extensive demographic information about maternal age, health and assisted reproductive interventions. Many people have concerns about the effect of IVF on the long-term health of the child and studies like this one may provide some answers. The parents of these children will receive ongoing updates of developmental progress and if any child develops health issues, there will be significant data that may help inform the child’s treatment.

With access to the incredible storehouse of information available from these collection cards from nearly every child in the state, in future approved studies, scientists may be able to look at a broader population for trends in chemical exposure over time. Just as public health programs succeeded in getting lead out of gas and paint, and ultimately out of people’s bodies, these studies will help identify which chemicals are causing problems for human health.

At the heart of it, said Aldous, “What is getting into us through the environment? What other chemicals are already present in newborns and how have they been exposed?” Also, said Kannan, “Why are some people sensitive to a chemical exposure of a small amount, when it takes much more to cause a health problem in the next person?”

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Sochi? So What? Public and Environmental Health at the Winter Olympics

By Michael Heintz, MS, JD, senior specialist, environmental laboratories, APHL

Sochi? So What? Public and Environmental Health at the Winter Olympics |

Hi. I’m Michael and I admit it: I’m a Winter Olympics fanatic. From learning new geography at the Opening Ceremonies, to hoping for that US-Canada hockey game, and seeing the short-track speed skaters hurl themselves in roller-derby-on-ice, I can’t get enough. I’ll even watch a couple hours of curling. I’m all-in for two weeks (well, except ice dancing, but that’s another post).

However, in the midst of the competition and spectacle, the public and environmental health aspects can get lost. With the international locations, huge crowds and new buildings, the footprint of the Olympics can be significant. So where do the Olympics intersect with public and environmental health?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides basic information if you’re heading to the Games (and more generally for international travel). In addition to routine vaccinations, like chicken pox and your flu shot (which you should already have!), the CDC recommends specific ones for Russia, such as hepatitis-A and others if you are particularly at-risk or heading to remote areas. Visitors should also prepare a travel health kit, including the medications they might need during travel. The CDC even provides a list of Russian phrases to use if you are sick or injured.

Next, one particular aspect of public health at the Games is interaction with the other spectators or athletes. Always remember to wash your hands, wear your seatbelt and generally stay aware of your surroundings. And yes, sexually transmitted infections are a concern at the Olympics. Organizers help the athletes by distributing condoms (150,000 were distributed to athletes at the London Games), but you might be on your own, so be prepared.

Finally, we cannot ignore the environmental impact of the Games. Sochi has an average population of 350,000 people. The 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver attracted an estimated 500,000 visitors plus another 10,000 journalists and 2,700 athletes (not counting security or volunteers). In all, Sochi’s size may double (or more) for the Games. The huge number of people coming to this Black Sea resort town, plus the construction of the new venues and other capacity improvements, will stress Sochi’s environment.

In 1996, the International Olympic Committee added environmental protection as the third pillar of the Olympics. As part of this commitment, Sochi organizers are making efforts to build and conduct the Games in an environmentally responsible manner, including a Green Building recognition program. But with a $50 billion price tag to build and run the events, the environmental impacts include increased construction waste, water shortages, habitat disruption and increased logging. All of these activities increase the amount of pollution in air, soil and water resources. Add the increased demand for drinking and wastewater services, transportation, and curiously, saving last year’s snow, and the overall environmental impact of the Games may be significant. However, we won’t know the full effects until after the Games are over. Looking ahead, the Rio Summer Games have already launched their sustainability program for 2016. Expect future Olympics host-cities to continue concentrating on environmental concerns when preparing for the Games.

While the public and environmental health concerns don’t decrease my appreciation for the spectacle that is the Olympics, including the athlete’s amazing abilities and the two weeks of global good will, it does add context to what goes into making such an event happen. Just another reminder that public and environmental health is part of everything.

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Sarin Gas Attacks in Syria: What if it happened in the US?

Nov 19 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Surili Sutaria Patel, Senior Specialist, Environmental Health, APHL 

“It is the worst use of chemical weapons on civilians in the 21st century,” said United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

On the cool night of August 21st, residents of Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian city of Damascus, were abruptly awakened by an explosion. In a region ravaged by civil war, explosions were unfortunately common; this particular explosion, however, was different.

An artillery rocket containing sarin gas had been released in the night, as the temperature dropped right before dawn. The cold, now-toxic air in Ghouta did not rise. Instead, the heavy gas circulated close to the ground and pervaded the lower levels of buildings where families rested for the night.

Almost immediately, many felt an onslaught of troubling symptoms: shortness of breath, disorientation, irritated eyes, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting. Many dropped into unconsciousness and over 1,400 people died, including 400 children, who would have been getting ready to go to school a few hours later.

Sarin is a volatile, man-made nerve agent used as a chemical weapon. First developed in Germany as a pesticide in 1938, sarin is a very toxic and fast acting gas. It is difficult to detect as it is a clear, colorless, tasteless and odorless vapor. Sarin enters the body through the eyes, skin, lungs or eating contaminated food. Instantly after exposure to the gaseous form and a few minutes after exposure to the liquid form the toxic effects of this chemical will present in humans. Sarin is a deadly chemical yet it is short-lived in the environment, presenting a very serious public health threat.

Given the symptoms (and the assumption that chemical weapons had been used), the UN stepped in to officially determine the cause of illness & death. They assembled an investigative team of scientists from Finland, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland to examine both environmental and clinical samples (blood, hair and urine).

A total of 30 environmental samples were collected from two impact sites and analyzed by two laboratories. Concurrently, a clinical investigation advanced: in addition to conducting medical examinations, 34 victims were selected to provide blood and urine samples for further investigation. Nearly 85% of the blood samples tested positive for sarin. The investigative team reported back with great confidence that the chemical weapon used was in fact, sarin.

The world mourned for these innocent people, so devastated by such an atrocious crime. The large-scale use of such weapons against civilians led to increased international attention on chemical weapons of mass destruction: their possession, storage, destruction, and use. Not only did the global community call for Syria to disclose and destroy their chemical weapons, but many countries examined their own system for responding to such an attack.

Sarin Gas Attacks in Syria: What if it happened in the US? |

While it is painful to think of, what if this reprehensible act of terrorism had taken place on US soil? Americans are protected by the CDC-funded Laboratory Response Network (LRN) which maintains an integrated network of laboratories that can respond quickly to acts of biological or chemical terrorism, as well as all the other wonderful first responders that skillfully approach such a scene.   The Laboratory Response Network for Chemical Threats (LRN-C), comprises 54 public health laboratories at the local, state, and territorial levels, and has protocols similar to the UN investigative team: from the systematic method used to select individuals for clinical testing to the chain of custody protocols practiced when collecting and shipping the samples to the appropriate laboratories. LRN-C operates as a network of laboratories designated Level 1, 2 or 3 laboratory capabilities.

  • Level 3 laboratories work with hospitals and first responders for clinical specimen collection, storage and shipment.
  • Level 2 laboratories employ chemists trained to detect various toxic chemical agents, including nerve agents such as sarin.
  • Level 1 laboratories use high-throughput analysis to serve as surge-capacity laboratories for CDC, in case CDC is overwhelmed by the number of samples. These labs also have the capability to test even more chemicals than the Level 2 laboratories.

The LRN, with funding and assistance from CDC, serves as a global, national, state and local asset. Its staff remains crucial to any chemical response in the United States and even abroad.

While we hope for that day where the potential for such atrocities no longer exists, we recognize the need to remain vigilant and prepared. Most importantly, our hearts and thoughts remain with the people of Ghouta, and Syria at large.

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Biomonitoring, Tracking and Keeping You Healthy

Oct 24 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Surili Sutaria Patel, MS, Senior Specialist, Environmental Health, APHL

There are multiple ways the environment – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the places we learn, work and play – influences our health. By measuring hazardous substances in our environment we can gain a better understanding of how we can reduce our exposures and prevent health problems in the future.

Biomonitoring, Tracking and Keeping You Healthy |

The National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network (or Tracking Network) is a system that tracks all these factors to better understand how the environment is impacting our health. The Tracking Network, headed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), provides 24 grants to state and local health departments to participate. Each jurisdiction has its own Network, but also feeds data into the National Tracking Network Portal. This lends insight into a variety of health indicators (e.g., air quality, birth defects, cancer, heart attacks, climate change, etc.), across geographic location and time, and more.

Biomonitoring – a tool used to measure hazardous substances once they have entered the body – furthers our knowledge of harmful environmental exposures. By examining blood and urine samples, biomonitoring programs have produced local exposure data identifying potentially-harmful chemicals and toxic substances in the human body. Biomonitoring studies can also compare results to CDC’s national biomonitoring data to learn whether a specific locality is more exposed than the US population.

By connecting tracking and biomonitoring data, states like Washington, Utah and Wisconsin are identifying harmful chemicals in both the environment and the human body. For example, in a webinar titled Environmental Public Health Tracking Meetings Public Health Labs, state environmental health director, Dr. Sam LeFevre outlined how the Utah Department of Health used tracking resources for conducting a state-wide biomonitoring study on lead and mercury exposure in newborn bloodspots. As one of the states that made up the Rocky Mountain Biomonitoring Consortium, and funded by CDC’s Phase 2 Implementation Grant from the Tracking Network, LeFevre and his team use neonatal bloodspots for conducting population surveillance for heavy metal exposure.

They chose metals because Utah is the third largest mining state in the US, with 24 active mines. Utah also has many fishing waters, 19 of which have fish advisories due to high mercury and other harmful metals. A lesson learned during the years Utah had an active child blood lead poisoning program was that the children most affected by lead poisoning were from upper-income families, who lived in homes with backyards made up of soil rich in metal oxides, traced back to their mining history. Now, by conducting biomonitoring on the bloodspots, the Utah Department of Health is painting a more accurate picture of the cause of elevated blood lead and mercury levels in children across the state. To learn more about Utah’s study, please view the free webinar. Here you will also find a presentation on Wisconsin’s tracking and biomonitoring work.

If you would like to share a success story about tracking and biomonitoring, please contact



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Massive Molasses Mess and the Laboratory Response

This month is National Preparedness Month.  Follow APHL on our blogTwitter and Facebook for preparedness information and discussions all month!


By Megan Latshaw, Director, Environmental Health Program, APHL

“It was shocking because the entire bottom is covered with dead fish. Small fish, crabs, mole crabs, eels. Every type of fish that you don’t usually see, but now they’re dead. Now they’re just laying there. Every single thing is dead. We’re talking in the hundreds, thousands. I didn’t see one single living thing underwater.” ~ Roger White, a diver (Massive Molasses Spill Devastates Honolulu Marine Life, NPR)

Massive Molasses Mess and the Laboratory Response) |

We’ve all heard of killing someone with kindness, but who knew that sweetness could deal such destruction? The sweetness comprises almost 250,000 gallons of molasses, spilled into Honolulu harbor on September 9th as it was being loaded into a ship via pipeline.

Because the greatest priority relates to public health, the Hawaii Department of Health is leading the response rather than the US Environmental Protection Agency or the US Coast Guard.

Their State Laboratories Division will be doing bacteria testing (enterococci, clostridium and total).  Since this spill is relatively unprecedented the first two bacterial tests were chosen because 1) Hawaii has a lot of data on them and 2) they are currently used to monitor water quality. Scientists are not sure how the spill will affect these indicators but they theorize that the dead fish and the nutrient-rich liquid could lead to unusual growth in marine algae and harmful bacteria. These data plus some chemistry and physical parameters will help them figure out when things are starting to get back to normal.

Meanwhile, the laboratory expects to run out of supplies for this valuable testing.  They have called upon their peer network to borrow and replace consumables from their labs, on the outside possibility that their suppliers cannot provide them with the necessary materials quickly enough. Such outreach emphasizes the importance of building relationships through networks such as the Laboratory Response Network and the Environmental Response Laboratory Network.

Click the image above for an interview with Hawaii’s public health laboratory director and many of their staff.

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What is the EPA’s Water Security Division?

This month is National Preparedness Month.  Follow APHL on our blogTwitter and Facebook for preparedness information and discussions all month!


By Michael Heintz, MS, JD, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories

What is the EPA’s Water Security Division? |

As we continue our march through preparedness month, did you know there are people devoted to protecting our water infrastructure?

Before you think, “right, it’s the EPA and they use the Clean Water Act.” While you’re partially right, it is a division within the US EPA, you should know this division works exclusively at protecting drinking water and wastewater treatment plants, pipes, and other physical components of the system. The Water Security Division (WSD) works to prevent, detect, respond to and recover from water hazards. These threats can include purposeful contamination of a drinking water system, a natural disaster, or an accident that threatens the water health of a community.

The WSD has four goals to advance the efforts to protect water infrastructure:

1. Sustain protection of public health and the environment;
2. Recognize and reduce risk;
3. Maintain a resilient infrastructure; and
4. Increase communication, outreach and public confidence.

The WSD works with the nearly 160,000 public water systems (PWS—drinking water distribution), and 16,000 publicly owned treatment works (POTWs—wastewater treatment) to help ensure safe and secure distribution of drinking water and collection and treatment of wastewater. All told, public water systems serve nearly 84%, and POTWs service almost 75%, of the US population. The rest are served by private water systems (like wells) and septic systems

The Water Security Division undertakes a number of activities every year to help ensure the safe operation of the nation’s water infrastructure. The WSD provides resources and programs to address critical issues like intentional contamination, contamination detection, mutual aid, vulnerability assessments, emergency response capabilities, communication strategies, and how to monitor incidents and threats. In addition, the WSD developed a number of tools that drinking water and wastewater facilities can use to increase their own preparedness levels.

One particularly active portion of the WSD is the Water Laboratory Alliance (hey, this is a laboratory blog, after all!). This laboratory-specific portion of the WSD provides laboratories with resources to help them respond to a water security threat. Of particular importance, the WLA provides training and exercise opportunities, communication outlets, and tools for emergency response. The WLA Response Plan goes so far as to outline the steps laboratories should undertake when responding to a water emergency.

With all of these resources at their disposal, drinking water and wastewater systems should be well prepared for an emergency scenario. If you have questions about your water systems, you can contact EPA at the Safe Drinking Hotline either via email or at 800-426-4791. Or, review the Hotline Reports to see answers to prior questions. Your individual utilities can also answer specific questions or review the Safe Drinking Water Information System to see what is in your water.

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Arsenic in our Food (and Public Health Laboratories)

May 09 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Surili Sutaria, senior specialist, Environmental Health, APHL

Over a year ago consumers expressed outrage following a Dr. Oz episode on arsenic levels in apple juice. The episode highlighted a Consumer Reports study that drew attention to arsenic in rice. The media coverage underscored that food and beverages represent the largest source of arsenic exposure for most Americans, yet arsenic is currently only regulated in drinking water.

Apple juice

Arsenic in drinking water comes either from naturally-occurring sources in the soil or from agricultural or industrial byproducts. For health reasons (arsenic is a well-known poison), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic.

You may have noticed the reference to inorganic arsenic, which is one of the three forms of arsenic. The inorganic form of arsenic, created when arsenic combines with elements other than carbon, is potentially harmful to humans. Exposure to inorganic arsenic increases the risk for bladder, kidney, liver, lung and skin cancers. But there are limitations to this knowledge, such as at what concentration and over what period of time is arsenic considered harmful to humans. Although the type of arsenic predominately found in foods is organic, the World Health Organization states that some common foods in our diet (like rice, juices and vegetables) do contain inorganic arsenic.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for foods, Michael Taylor, stated that the agency’s ongoing data collection and analysis aims to provide a basis for determining action to reduce exposure to arsenic in foods. Still, though, concerns escalate as consumers realize that infant foods such as rice cereal and some formulas contain potentially-contaminated rice. The lack of understanding of the science has prompted both the public and the media to demand action.

How can my state or local public health laboratory take action?

Public health laboratories have the technology and the knowledge to test for arsenic in drinking water, food and people, and to potentially help answer questions being raised by the media. This testing capability is largely due to CDC’s investment in chemical threat preparedness at the state and local levels. Funded laboratories looking to use their instruments more fully may consider biomonitoring – a tool used to assess people’s exposure to chemicals and toxic substances in the body – as an option. This dual-use opportunity will not only bridge gaps in research, but also lead to policy decisions that may help protect the health of Americans.

“I have long thought that public health laboratories should take advantage of ‘dual use’ opportunities offered by the CDC via our chemical threat funded instruments…especially in the realm of ICP-MS testing of heavy metals,” Dr. Patrick Luedtke, senior public health officer from the Lane County Department of Health and Human Services.

Recently, the Washington State Department of Health used their CDC Laboratory Response Network funding to conduct a state-wide biomonitoring study to test arsenic and other metals in humans and their environments. To learn more about how Washington State Department of Health completed their study, please see the “Efforts to Reduce Harmful Exposures to Washingtonians” article in the Winter 2013 issue of APHL’s Lab Matters.


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What We’re Reading—Earth Day Edition

Apr 22 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health, What We're Reading

Planet Earth

By Michael Heintz, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories, APHL

As we near the end of Earth Day 2013, I always wonder if the momentum from the day will be maintained in the coming days, weeks, and months. Surili got us started with a great post on some of the latest issues with climate change, and there were articles and activities from a wide variety of sources. But what about tomorrow and the next day and the next? I recommend the links below to learn more about what you can do to continue the aims of Earth Day—reducing pollution, limiting resource consumption, and generally getting a little more green.

Take action!

Learn more!

  • Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by Michael Braungart and William McDonough: This is a great book about the green economy and how sustainability can strengthen business.
  • American Chemistry Society: The ACS is a great resource for information on chemistry and other science topics in easy to digest forms (yes, I watched the podcast on the chemistry of beer foam—it was research!).
  • Involve Children: There are lots of resources for involving kids in environmental responsibility. Here are games organized by topic, activities you can do with them, and books on science and nature. (Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without a reference to The Lorax.)
  • Earth Day Apps: No reason to leave your smartphone out of the fun!
  • New (to you?) Issues: If you are interested in learning about some of the new issues that seem to be making news, here are good resources on sustainability, toxic algae, and invasive species.

These links just scratch the surface of what’s out there. If you have additional ideas to share, we’d like to hear them! How are you making Earth Day more than just one day a year?

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