Lab Matters Winter 2020 | Page 33

MEMBERSHIP Testing NPHEL performs about 65,000-70,000 tests per year. About 60% of test samples comes from public water systems from the 1,600 municipalities across the state. Another 28% or so comes from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, which monitors the state’s environmental and waste waters. Private customers account for just over 8% of samples. In addition to water testing, the laboratory performs blood alcohol testing for motor vehicle cases on behalf of nearly 300 local and state law enforcement agencies and analyzes air samples for a PM 2.5 project overseen by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy. Successes The laboratory’s biggest success comes from one of the state’s largest environmental catastrophes, a bomb cyclone in eastern Nebraska that coincided with a large scale blizzard in western Nebraska in March 2019. Extreme storm-related flooding led all but two of Nebraska’s 93 counties to declare a state of emergency, and Lincoln came perilously close to losing its public water supply after floodwaters threatened the city’s water pumping station. As of December 2019, Boden said, “There are still quite a few cities, villages and individual residents getting back their drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities now. The flooding has not yet completely subsided.” Chemist III Jim Balk, PhD, reviews results in the HPLC room. Photo: NE Environmental Lab PublicHealthLabs @APHL Nebraska Environmental Lab During the worst of the crisis, NPHEL coordinated with the US Environment Protection Agency’s Region 7 office to secure the services of its certified mobile laboratory for on-site bacteriological water testing. Still, said Boden, “All the overflow samples came to us.” During several weeks in March and April, laboratory analysts worked overtime to “get those samples into the incubators, get them read out and the information back to the public as quickly as possible.” She said, “The flooding is still an ongoing issue for a lot of people.” Challenges • Probably the biggest challenge facing NPHEL is maintaining the laboratory without direct control over staffing and salary levels. • A second problem is specimen transport: “Since we’re a rural state, people have to drive a bit to get to us or their local post office,” said Boden. “It’s a problem to get bacterial samples to any certified lab within the 30-hour testing window.” Because of US Postal Service budget cuts, some Nebraska mail now gets sent to sorting facilities as far away as Denver, necessitating the use of costly priority express services to expedite sample delivery. Lab Scientist II Tara Wolfekoetter analyzes water for coliform and E. coli. Photo: NPHEL Goals • Completing the LIMS upgrade. • Tackling two big upcoming projects: (1) lead testing water in elementary schools and childcare facilities and (2) characterizing manganese levels in drinking water sources for community water systems serving fewer than 10,000 people. Although manganese is necessary for human health, excess exposure can cause memory deficits and problems with attention and motor skills. “It’s a big project on top of our already heavy load.” • Maintaining laboratory fees at a sustainable level. “We want to do the best we can for the public and also have enough income to be self- sustaining.” The fee structure is set by statute. n • This year NPHEL upgraded its laboratory information management system (LIMS) from Horizon Version 11 to Version 12. “IT people always want you to move forward for security purposes, so we’re moving to Version 12 and it looks dramatically different because it’s web-based,” said Boden. “We are also having to update equipment and/or install new software due to the move to Windows 10 at the same time as we change our LIMS. It’s kinda like starting over. …We’re still working through the bugs.” Winter 2020 LAB MATTERS 31