Labs Protect Public from Chemical Threats

By Jennifer Pierson, MPH, Senior Specialist, Environmental Health, APHL

The word anthrax strikes fear in the hearts of many Americans, who probably still remember the events of 2001. While we cannot deny bioterrorism is a major threat, other threats exist – for example chemical attacks. For some reason the fact that tens of thousands of chemicals are produced each year and many industrial chemicals are easily obtained is not enough to garner much attention.

Public health laboratories have been building capability to respond to such attacks with the assistance of federal partners at CDC, EPA, FDA, DHS and more. Through this work, they are even better prepared to respond to non-terrorist incidents that occur almost every day. Some of the latest headlines involving chemicals include:

Most people have probably heard of such spills, fires, explosions and other events in their area. Public health and environmental laboratories often work with their local jurisdictions to ensure there are not health threats after such incidents. These laboratories may not be testing for the dreaded anthrax everyday but they are working to protect the public everyday.

Some of APHLs member laboratories have shared examples of how their preparedness training is helping them respond to other incidents:

  • The Connecticut laboratory is in regular communication with their local hospitals and because of this they were able to help identify an arsenic poisoning.
  • The Environmental lab in Pennsylvania helped to analyze water samples after a large fire and found elevated levels of chemicals in the water and runoff. Commercial labs also participating in the testing were not able to identify the potentially hazardous chemicals.
  • The State Hygienic Lab in Iowa has a strong relationship with its local Poison Control Center, and it was this relationship that led to the lab identifying the cause of illness in a sick resident. The lab was called after hours and responded quickly to test an unknown liquid the person had consumed. The lab found several harmful chemicals in the liquid and reported the results back to the patient and the Poison Control Center.

Let’s hear it for these unsung heroes working to protect US citizens everyday!

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