Lab Matters Winter 2020 - Page 32

MEMBERSHIP Waterwise: The Nebraska Public Health Environmental Laboratory by Nancy Maddox, MPH, writer Nebraska is a landlocked state, but the Missouri River traces its eastern edge, dozens of other waterways curl across its hills and plains, and beneath its 77,000 square miles of loess, shale and sandy soils lies one of the world’s largest underground water reserves, the Ogallala Aquifer—the source of much of the state’s potable water. These liquid resources are a boon to Nebraska, sustaining communities, supporting local “Silicon Prairie” high-tech entrepreneurs, and growing $6.5 billion in annual agricultural exports (mostly soybeans, corn and beef). And it falls largely to one state entity to assess the quality of these resources at any given point in time: the Nebraska Public Health Environmental Laboratory (NPHEL). The entirely fee-based laboratory tests municipal drinking water, private well water, surface water, ground water and industrial discharge waters, measuring levels of harmful bacteria; heavy metals, such as the arsenic, selenium, uranium and manganese that occur naturally in the environment here; and nitrates, nutrients and other chemicals that may be released by some agricultural or industrial activities. In addition to its own analytical work, the NPHEL certifies five other water-testing laboratories serving Nebraska’s 1.9 million residents. Facility The controlled-access laboratory is housed in a stand-alone redbrick building that dates to the 1970s and sits along the southwest edge of Lincoln, the state capital. Originally, the building contained four laboratories, but clinical public health testing relocated to the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus and the crime laboratory to its own building, which is affiliated with the Nebraska State Patrol. Today, the 14,000-square-foot space occupied by NPHEL includes administrative offices and the laboratory’s metals program on the first floor and customer service and 30 LAB MATTERS Winter 2020 Chemist III Thulani Senanayake, PhD, analyzes water for the presence of volatile chemicals. Photo: NPHEL all other testing areas in the basement. Over the years, NPHEL has gained two building additions. And, about ten years ago, the facility’s entire HVAC system was updated. The only other building occupant is the Nebraska Department of Agriculture Laboratory. Laboratory Manager Mary Boden grew up in rural Tecumseh, Nebraska, where a small historic downtown gives way to the open plains. After high school, she earned a degree in biology from Nebraska Wesleyan University and traveled to the US South and to Europe with her military husband. She came home to the plains in 1988 and began her career at the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality in 1989, becoming lead chemist in 2008 and laboratory manager in 2013. “I never dreamed I would be here this long,” said Boden. “But I enjoy the work, the people and the challenges.” Staff In addition to the laboratory manager, quality assurance manager and IT analyst, the NPHEL employs 13 full time workers— ten analysts and three customer service agents who handle the laboratory’s busy walk-in business (currently, 9,000 private clients), assemble and mail water test kits, create test orders, distribute samples to analysts, mail results reports and perform data entry. In addition, there are two temporary workers whom Boden would like to make permanent. “We have a mix of people,” she said. “Some have been here for 35-plus years and others are new; not too much in the middle.” Although Boden anticipates some retirements in the near future, the laboratory has no current vacancies. Revenue The laboratory operates entirely on fee income, typically about $2.1 million per year. In FY 2019, the laboratory got an unusual gift of $200,000 from its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, earmarked for much- needed laboratory equipment. PublicHealthLabs @APHL APHL.org