The major responsibility of the Public & Environmental Health Laboratory (PEHL) is to provide the necessary analytical testing capability and other resource support for the Division of Environmental Quality to accomplish its mission.
The PEHL analyzes samples of potable water, bottled water, groundwater, fresh surface waters, marine waters as well as soil, hazardous and solid wastes and sewage for: toxic heavy metals; radioactive isotopes; suspected carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, pesticides, semi-volatile organic compounds and bacteriological contamination. The Laboratory’s responsibility includes testing of both public and private wells and water supplies to determine the potability of water. It includes monitoring pool and bathing beach water to assure their safety. It also analyzes samples of the ocean, bays, lakes, rivers and streams for pollutants and nutrients that can damage the ecosystem. The PEHL analyzes marine water samples for chlorophyll-a and Aureococcus anophagefferens (“Brown Tide”). The PEHL also analyzes samples for hazardous materials that may have been discharged, stored or transported in violation of the law. These tests may be performed as part of routine Department industrial surveillance, undercover investigations or search warrants conducted by the Environmental Crime Unit of the District Attorney’s Office.
The PEHL possesses the capability to perform detailed analyses for a wide array of chemicals and microbiological parameters and must constantly expand its capabilities to help protect the drinking water, fresh and marine surface waters. By 2010, the maximum number of contaminants determined in a drinking water sample increased to 348. This includes 187 different pesticides and their degradation products, 25 pharmaceutical and personal care products, 5 flame retardants, bisphenol A (BPA) and an inorganic parameter, perchlorate.
While the PEHL supports many routine regulatory programs it is also at the forefront of emerging environmental issues by adding newly published analytical methods, adapting currently used methods and creating methods where none exist. Compounds such as bisphenol A, an industrial chemical used to make polycarbonate resin plastic, and DEET, an insect repellant, are included in the contaminants determined in drinking water samples. Methods have been adapted to include pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) and a number of other pesticides and their metabolites that are not routinely determined by other laboratories. The PEHL has also developed and published methods to determine methyl carbamate pesticides, such as Temik, and their metabolites and the metabolites of the herbicides, Dacthal. The method for the carbamate pesticides was later adopted by the USEPA as Method 531.
The PEHL utilizes sophisticated instrumentation/techniques such as gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS), liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS), liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS), gas chromatographs with selective detectors, liquid chromatographs with ultraviolet or fluorescence detectors for numerous types of pesticides, their degradation products, semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Automated Ion chromatographs (IC) with conductivity detectors and one with a mass spectrometer are used for the determination of inorganic contaminants, including perchlorate. Inductively coupled plasma/optical emission spectroscopy (ICP/OES) and inductively coupled plasma/mass spectroscopy (ICP/MS) are used for the determination of 30 metals, including toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, uranium. Automated liquid scintillation and gas proportional counters are used for the determinations of tritium or the presence of isotopes emitting alpha or beta particles. In addition to the routine enumeration of total and fecal coliform bacteria the bacteriology laboratory capability has expanded to include enterococcus bacteria, the determination of Chlorophyll-a and “Brown Tide” counts. The bacteriology laboratory has an automated Vitek 2 bacteria identification system, which makes it possible to identify thousands of bacteria species.
To maximize sample throughput while minimizing required manpower the PEHL has always incorporated the use of as many automated instruments as possible. Many of these analytical instruments operate 24 hours/day, six days a week. Bathing beaches, marine samples and sewage samples require the PEHL’s bacteriology section to operate on a seven days a week basis. The total number of technical personnel in the PEHL is 23.
The PEHL is accredited by both the NYSDOH-Environmental Laboratory Approval Program (ELAP) and the National Environmental Laboratory Approval Program (NELAP) for potable and non-potable water, solid and hazardous wastes categories. The PEHL is subject to biennial on-site inspections and semi-annual proficiency testing. Each analyst is required to demonstrate capability before being able to perform the determination of an analyte(s) and must demonstrate continued proficiency annually. In order for the PEHL to maintain its accreditation, the laboratory must participate in two proficiency test studies per year and perform satisfactory on an on-going basis, in 2 out of 3 successive proficiency test studies. The accreditation programs are based on ISO standards. Time-consuming Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are required to be maintained for every test method employed by the laboratory. The “Quality Systems” requisite mandates increasing QA/QC requirements which includes annual internal audits to insure compliance with the laboratory’s “Quality System” and accreditation standards. Accreditation requirements specify that laboratories must have a Quality Assurance Officer. Currently, two analysts have volunteered to act as Quality Assurance Officers
The Hazardous Materials Response Team of the PEHL is comprised of Forensic Scientists, Chemists, Bacteriologists and Laboratory Technicians. This team is on-call 24 hrs/day, 7 days/week to respond to environmental crime scenes at the request of the Environmental Crime Unit of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office to act as scientific advisors, assist in the recovery of evidence and secure and maintain a valid chain-of-custody on the evidence until it is analyzed at the PEHL. An example of this cooperation was the analysis of unknown liquids found in 55-gallon drums abandoned on the side of the LIE. Analysis of the “unknown liquid” at the PEHL revealed the presence of high concentrations of solvents associated with the processing of illicit drugs. A white substance found in the liquid was submitted to the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory and was found to contain cocaine. The results of these analyses were conveyed to the Environmental Crime Unit. This resulted in an undercover investigation that lasted over six months and resulted in the execution of a search warrant on a private residence used as a “cocaine processing lab” in the community of North Sea.
The PEHL has assisted the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory in the investigation of poisonings associated with cyanide and carbon monoxide. The PEHL also provides analytical support and scientific advice to the Suffolk County Police Department, Fire Rescue Emergency Services and Town and County Fire Marshals when required.
The PEHL provides assistance to the Suffolk County Health Service’s Bureau of Public Health Protection in assessing exposure to metals such as lead and arsenic by analyses of paint, cosmetics, dietary supplements, herbal remedies, in addition to soil and water samples. The PEHL has also applied its technical capability/adaptability to determine the surface deposition of the pesticides used in the adulticide spraying by the Suffolk County Mosquito Control program.
Support is also provided to the NYSDOH and NYSDEC for investigations of environmental problem sites throughout Suffolk County. A recent example would be the request of the NYSDOH for PEHL staff to perform a site visit and collection of samples from a cooling tower suspected to be the source of the organism responsible for deaths from legionellosis. The information and samples were sent to the NYSDOH for their action. In 2010, in cooperation with the NYSDEC and NYSDOH, an air monitoring evaluation of selected yard waste management facilities in Suffolk County was completed.
Given the Laboratory’s analytical capability to determine a substantial number of pesticides and their degradation products, at parts-per-billion (ppb) and sub-ppb concentrations in water, the PEHL has been a part of a grant from the NYSDEC, analyzing potable water and test well samples from both Suffolk and Nassau Counties. This grant was awarded in 1997 and the County has received over $1,200,000.00 for its efforts.