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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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? | www.aphlblog.org

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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Happy Earth Day — There’s Still More to Do

Apr 22 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Surili Sutaria, Senior Specialist, Environmental Health, APHL

Today marks the 43rd Earth Day – a day to celebrate the place we all call home. Every year, people all over the world host events to honor the Earth and support the growing appreciation and awareness of environmental protection. The first Earth Day, held in 1970, was supported by nearly 20 million Americans. Today, there are over 190 countries that observe this day. Yet the encouraging message remains the same: protect our planet.

Planet Earth

This year, the Earth Day Network’s “Faces of Climate Change” promotes the diversity of climate change by raising awareness of climate change as an issue to human health, as well as its effects on wildlife  forests, severe weather patterns and more. The changing climate impacts all inhabitants of the Earth.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eloquently describes the issues climate change presents to our planet: the earth is warming and it is affecting everyone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains the connection between climate change and human health: as the climate becomes warmer, extreme weather events (such as heat waves, floods, hurricanes and more) occur more frequently and more severely all over the world, and our ability to protect the health of our families and neighbors becomes more difficult. In some parts of the world, droughts and floods impact food and water sources leading to malnutrition or disease. Sometimes droughts force families to relocate leaving behind their homes and their way of life causing mental distress. Water sources can become contaminated. With increasing temperatures, the risk of emerging or reemerging infectious diseases (i.e., malaria or dengue fever) increases.  To learn more about climate change and public health, read Get the Facts: Climate is a Public Health Issue, by the American of Public Health Association.

Greenhouse gas graphic

Overwhelming scientific consensus indicates that the climate is changing in part because of human activity. According to the World Health Organization, our exceptional ability to emit carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases over the past 50 years has triggered changes in temperature, natural disasters and patterns of infection. Collectively, we emit these harmful pollutants via our use of electricity, transportation, industry, housing and agriculture. Individually, there are many steps we can take to reduce our use of greenhouse gases, such as walking, biking or taking public transportation; turning off lights when we are not at home, buying locally-sourced produce, and more.

Part of raising awareness of Earth Day is prompting individuals to take action by doing something different in their lives to protect our planet. In the spirit of doing something different, tell us what you are doing different to support the international Earth Day celebration.

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The End of Sequestration: Not as Great as it Sounds

Apr 02 2013 :: Published in Public Policy

By Peter Kyriacopoulos, Senior Director, Public PolicyAPHL

Sequestration – or the “automatic cuts” in federal funding – is dead. Long live sequestration! We will no longer go through the drama of the imposition of automatic spending cuts that occurred on March 1, 2013 – but not because Congress and the White House have reached an agreement that suspends sequestration and puts in place a balanced and responsible plan for deficit reduction.

MoneyThe automatic spending cuts feature of the Budget Control Act (BCA) was limited to the fiscal year 2013 funding cycle. In fiscal years 2014 through 2022, the mechanism for achieving the level of cuts required by BCA will instead occur behind the scenes by a reduction in the spending caps for each of those fiscal years. This means that each year the appropriations committees in Congress will have $109 billion less than the amounts they anticipated – and specifically that each year there will be at least $33 billion less for non-defense discretionary accounts, including the one that funds the department of Health and Human Services (including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)). The reduction in funding will vary between $33 billion and $37 billion each year, a cut of about 5.5% to 7% annually. Defense funding will be reduced to a greater extent: $54 billion each year.

The Congress has passed and the President signed into law a funding measure for the remainder of federal fiscal year 2013, and while that action avoided a shut-down of federal governmental operations past March 27, 2013, it maintained the application of the automatic spending cuts – or sequestration – for fiscal year 2013. So this means that federal agencies must now produce plans on how they will address the reduction in spending for their operations.  The reductions – each of which must occur between now and September 30, 2013 – are as follows:

  • CDC: $340 million
  • HRSA: $365 million
  • FDA: $209 million
  • Global Health: $411 million
  •  EPA: $385 million

But wait, there’s more. The House-passed budget resolution for fiscal year 2014, written by Congressman Paul Ryan, not only assumes a continuation of the reduced funding for non-defense discretionary caused by the sequester and its evolution, it also cancels the reductions in defense and transfers those cuts onto non-defense discretionary. That’s just the beginning: In total, the House-passed budget would impose an additional (in addition to sequestration for defense being transferred to non-defense) cut of $700 billion in non-defense discretionary funding over the next ten years. Thankfully, the Senate-passed budget resolution does not follow this extreme path and instead fully replaces the amount lost in the fiscal year 2013 sequester and beyond.

It is extremely unlikely that the considerable differences between the House-passed and Senate-passed budget resolutions for federal fiscal year 2014 can be resolved, and more likely that the House and the Senate will move to considering appropriations bills and other deficit reduction legislation under the direction of their specific budget resolutions – laying the groundwork for irreconcilable differences on those measures. All of which will lead to uncertainty. A rose by any other name most likely will not smell as sweet.

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Tap Water vs. Bottled Water

Mar 27 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Michael Heintz, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories, APHL

Tap Water

Do you drink tap water? Did you know that there are a number of safeguards ensuring the water you receive from municipal or community sources is safe to drink? It’s true! Before communities provide water to their residents, it must meet the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure its safety and drinkability. To meet the law, public water goes through a treatment plant before distribution. In these plants, the water can be subjected to a variety of actions including filtration, settling of solids, and disinfection typically through the addition of chlorine. (The low levels of chlorine added to your water are closely monitored and are safe for consumption.) Although you sometimes see discoloration or detect a slight odor on occasion, the water at your tap meets this federal law.

TapVSWaterWe know you’re asking, “Ok, that’s great, but how do I know the water meets the law?” Rest easy because an environmental laboratory in your state tests the water before the community distributes it. And, in fact, a state or US EPA must certify these laboratories for competency and quality assurance before they can conduct the tests. Public drinking water can only be tested by those laboratories approved to do so. While the frequency of testing and the chemical tested for varies by state, many laboratories test for number of contaminants on a daily and weekly basis. Then, at least once per year, public water systems must release a Consumer Confidence Report showing their communities the average results of the tests. Typically water utilities mail them directly to you, but more are going electronic. These reports contain information on your tap water including chemical-by-chemical results, explanations on the drinking water requirements and legal limits, and method of disinfection.

So let’s review the safeguards on your tap water:

  • A treatment plant to clean and disinfect the water,
  • Requirements to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act,
  • Regular testing by state or EPA certified laboratories,
  • And annual public reporting.

Bottled Water

Now, what about bottled water? First, the Food and Drug Administration, not EPA, regulates bottled water as a packaged food. Consequently, federal law does not require bottled water to be cleaner than tap water—in fact the standards are nearly identical. And, in some ways, government regulates bottled water less than tap water. For example, bottled water companies do not need certified laboratories to test their product. While bottled water is tested, almost any laboratory can do the work. In addition the FDA does not require a standard laboratory method for testing bottled water. With tap water, all the labs use the same testing procedure as EPA—ensuring consistency among the certified labs. Moreover, bottled water companies do not send you annual reports on the quality of the bottled water. Although you could just look at your consumer confidence report—an estimated 25% of all bottled water comes from municipal tap water.

Finally, there’s the plastic used. Did you know that Americans use enough bottled water each week to make a line of bottles 155,000 miles long? Next, do you recycle? Good—most people don’t: four billion pounds of plastic bottles go into landfills or become litter each year. In both cases, that’s a lot of plastic. How many bottles do you use a week?

So as you go get yourself a glass of water, think about where it comes from and what went into getting you that water. Our tap water is safe and we have the data to prove it.  I’ll be filling up at the tap.

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Banning BPA – Why TSCA Reform is Needed

Oct 26 2011 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Jennifer Pierson, Environmental Health Senior Specialist, APHL

Back in August, we blogged about Bisphenol A (BPA) and it continues to show up in media headlines. The debate continues to rage over whether or not BPA is harmful to humans, and if it is, at what concentrations. A recent interview with Frederick vom Saal, a biologist at the University of Missouri’s Endocrine Disruptors Group explains the potential risks, finishing by saying, “There are now a whole series of human studies finding exactly the same relationship between the presence of Bisphenol A and the kind of harm shown in animals. That scares me. I don’t think that’s alarmist.”

Sippy cup

Despite the heated debate over the health effects, some lawmakers agree newborns and infants should not be exposed to BPA. Following on the heels of several other states, California recently passed a ban on BPA in baby bottles. While some see this as a success, changing the way the US deals with chemicals in consumer products is the best way to reduce human exposure to harmful chemicals in everyday products.

The way to truly protect consumers from exposure to chemicals is to reform the way the US regulates chemical production and use. One way to do this is through reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA.)

Last year, APHL sent EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, a letter showing our support of TSCA reform. When she was first appointed to the EPA Administrator position, TSCA reform was one of Ms. Jackson’s goals for at least two reasons: (1) It has not been updated since it was introduced in 1976; (2) only five chemicals have ever been banned under TSCA, none since 1990.

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S. 847) again this year. According to Senator Lautenberg, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 will “address each of the core failings of TSCA.” The public health community remains optimistic this bill will make it through Congress and pass; however it’s been held up probably due to other issues such as the economic crisis and upcoming elections, taking precedence.

Back to BPA – a potentially harmful, estrogenic chemical found in so many plastics it’s hard to keep track. If we were following Europe’s approach, the precautionary principle, we would probably never allow BPA into consumer products in the first place.

Even if every state successfully bans BPA in baby bottles, I have to ask, what about all the other food containers with BPA? What about other products like cash register receipts? And what about other estrogenic chemicals? Some research indicates that BPA-free bottles still exhibit estrogenic activity.

Without comprehensive chemical reform, states can go on banning one chemical at a time and the industry will replace it with a new chemical. The catch is the new chemical could be just as harmful because they are not required to prove it is safe. While banning BPA in baby bottles is a good first step, we strongly support overhauling the entire process and can only wait and hope the Safe Chemicals Act will pass.

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Be Prepared [for a Nuclear Crisis]

Apr 28 2011 :: Published in Environmental Health, Food Safety

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

The Japan Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident following the March earthquake and tsunami raised fears of radiation exposure and sickness in the US. Many Americans who were not in favor of nuclear power prior to this accident are using Fukushima as an example of the safety issues associated with this technology. While the safety issues can be fiercely debated, laboratory testing capability and public health safety should be black and white.

VOA Herman - April 13 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant-03

A small plume of radioactive materials from Japan did make it to the US as confirmed by the results from analyses of air, precipitation and milk samples. Public health laboratories and federal agencies worked in concert to analyze environmental samples ranging from air to milk for radioactive materials in order to determine the levels that reached our shores.  The sample results did not indicate levels of concern for the public’s health.

While the plume may have been unexpected, imagine a worst case scenario where a US nuclear power plant faced a similar accident as Fukushima. If this power plant happened to be within 50 miles of a major metropolis, say New York City, millions of people would be affected and thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people would seek testing.

If such an event occurred on US soil, there might be enough capacity to test environmental and food samples thanks in large part to federal agency support.   This support includes an EPA grant program and a program within the FDA and USDA collaborative network called the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN). Both EPA and FERN have programs in place to expand radiation testing capabilities in state public health laboratories. EPA is pilot testing radiation analyses in state public health laboratories and the FERN funds five laboratories to test food for radiation. However, the 2012 President’s budget proposed drastic budget cuts for both programs and, if implemented, both EPA and FERN would have to halt funding to the state public health laboratories. We can only hope the Japan incident is a reminder of the importance of funding laboratories. We do not want to be left scrambling if an event happens closer to home.

Despite CDC’s efforts to develop rapid screening methods, capacity to test humans for radionuclide contamination lags behind. Congress even acknowledged the gaps in radionuclide testing during a hearing in 2007. Yet, they have not appropriated funds to CDC to enhance testing capabilities or to expand current methods to state public health laboratories, who would act as surge laboratories during a large scale event.

The solution is clear. The US needs to find a better balance of funding for our public health programs to do what they do best: protect the health of the public. Large-scale nuclear accidents may be rare but that does not mean we should not be prepared. Learn more about radiation and APHL’s efforts during the Japan response from this fact sheet or on our website.

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