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Perspective On: An Environmental Lab

“Is my water safe to drink?” Getting the answer to that question is Russell Leu’s main goal as section supervisor of the environmental laboratory in the Montana State Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS).

Rachel Muenz

Rachel Muenz, managing editor for G2 Intelligence, can be reached at

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A Question of Quality

Providing accurate information to keep drinking water safe is this lab’s main mission

The lab’s first priority is to ensure that the state’s drinking water is safe, analyzing water from public water supply systems, private wells, and other sources for possible contaminants.

All public water supply systems in Montana have to do a certain amount of sampling (depending on their size) to meet regulations, Leu explains.

“It may be something as simple as a bacteria [test] once a quarter, or once a month, or it may be a lot more than just bacteria,” Leu says. “There is a lot of chemical analysis testing— pesticides, herbicides, volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds, and radiologicals. The big cities have a lot more sampling to do than a small RV park or a bar that handles fewer people.”

Individuals who just want to know whether their water is safe can also get their samples tested at the lab and get any questions about their results answered. Leu says providing those answers is one of his favorite parts of the job.

“It can be pretty daunting [for the average person] when you get a number that’s 20 parts per billion of this and .05 parts per billion of that,” says Leu, who has worked in his current position for almost four years but has over 20 years of analytical chemistry experience. “What does that all mean? The average person needs some help.”

DPHHS Environmental Laboratory chemist Jill Cohenour concentrates on her work.The most common tests the lab runs are for total coliform and E. coli, but there are several other contaminants they look for that are particularly common to Montana.

“Because we’re a rural state with a lot of farming, nitrate testing is a very important test that we do,” Leu says, adding that there’s also a lot of mining in Montana. “When you have mines, you sometimes have tailings, and then you have water running through those, and it can pick up some of the heavy metals—arsenic, lead, cadmium, etc.—so [residents] want to know what they are.”

On rare occasions, municipalities have emergencies with their water supplies that they need analysis for.

“Once in a while we will get a situation where, say, with a public water supply system, their storage tank has been breached and there is the possibility that something not so nice was put in it. So then we would test for various possible contaminants in their system,” Leu says.

But the environmental lab, part of the state’s laboratory services bureau which also includes a clinical lab, isn’t the only one looking after Montana’s drinking water. Currently, there are 20 out-of-state labs and 18 in-state labs certified to do water testing in Montana, and it’s the state laboratory’s job to certify them.

“We do on-site audits once every three years for in-state laboratories, and we do the reciprocal certification for out-of-state laboratories, those who are certified by NELAC [National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Conference] or the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] or their state certifying authority,” Leu says.

In addition to those main duties, the lab also helps the Department of Environmental Quality with many of its summer sampling and monitoring projects and even helps out college professors with some analyses.

“For example, we’re doing a mouse blood metal analysis for a researcher at a college,” Leu says. “She got a grant to do some testing and wasn’t able to do it herself, so she contracted it out to us.”

Skills and staffing

Currently, those responsibilities are handled by Leu and his staff of four chemists (they are looking for a fifth). The lab is also part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Laboratory Response Network (LRN), meaning the lab also has a parttime chemical terrorism coordinator on staff.

“It [the LRN] involves us being proficient in analyzing several possible agents of terrorism, so if there was some sort of contaminated site or act of terrorism where they suspected an agent of terrorism and they identified it, we would be able to analyze those samples,” Leu explains.

When hiring staff members, the lab prefers individuals with chemistry degrees, though any sort of science degree paired with analytical laboratory experience is also acceptable, Leu says, adding that three of his chemists have chemistry degrees while the fourth has a microbiology degree and lots of lab experience. Once staff members begin, they receive thorough training that varies depending on what experience they have.

“They’re definitely going to have to learn our laboratory information management system [LIMS], because that’s where all the customer information and all the test information is put in,” Leu says. Along with that training, there is an orientation program that familiarizes new staff with all the state requirements, and the state public health and safety division has a half-day training program that is specific to the lab. Each test done in the lab is EPA-approved, which means staff have to learn the standard operating procedures and system requirements that go along with those tests.

“You don’t just hand them a method and say, ‘Start analyzing samples,’” Leu says. “There are demonstrations of capability that they have to perform, there are method detection limit studies that they have to run, and then they have to pass the proficiency test before they are fully qualified to run that method. Otherwise, they would have to work under a senior chemist or one who’s certified for that particular method.”

Staff are kept busiest during the summer months when the lab is “bombarded with samples,” Leu says, but things slow down in the winter. Because of the cyclical nature of their work, the number of samples the lab deals with each month varies greatly.

The metals analysis section of the laboratory.“All of our big projects probably come from April to October, and then it’s just finishing those off. And we get a few standard bacterias that run year-round and a few other small sampling batches,” he says. “You either have a lot of samples or you have a few. The winter months are when you do all these demonstrations of capability and method detection limit studies and linear range studies.”

Winter is also when the lab, which is certified by EPA Region 8, does a lot of its instrument maintenance.

Looking after the lab

As section supervisor, Leu is responsible for ensuring that samples are being run through in a timely fashion, that the lab meets all the method holding times, and that when the sample is completed and they generate a report, all the QA/QC requirements are being met and the lab is quickly producing legally defensible data. He also makes sure chemists have the supplies and consumables they need, checks backlog reports, and resets priorities when necessary to complete any projects that may have fallen by the wayside.

“There are some tests that take a lot longer than others, and some of them can be done in a matter of minutes,” he says. “Some of them are five-day tests. It’s a matter of making sure that we meet the method turnaround time.”

DPHHS Environmental Laboratory supervisor Russell Leu.Leu says he doesn’t have to do much to motivate his staff, but he works to keep a positive atmosphere in the lab.

“They’re pretty much self-motivated, but we try to keep them informed on what future projects are coming up,” he says. “We try to use a lot of humor and keep it light in the lab. We want to do serious work here, but we also want to have fun doing it.”

Both the environmental and clinical labs are overseen by DPHHS Laboratory Services Bureau chief Ron Paul, who ensures that staff members at both labs are able to do their jobs properly.

“I view my responsibility as ensuring that the folks who work in those laboratories are equipped and have the proper capability to be able to fulfill the goals of those respective laboratories and, hopefully, be able to do their jobs better with my help,” says Paul.

As with most laboratories, there’s no such thing as an average day in Montana’s state environmental lab, apart from reviewing instrument worksheets and generating reports, Leu says.

“A typical day for me is not typical,” he says. “Every day when I leave, I usually write down a list of things I want to do the next morning. There’s been several days where I haven’t gotten to a single one of those.”

Many other environmental labs can likely relate to one of the main challenges Leu’s lab faces: waiting for new methods to be approved by the EPA.

“We have to use EPA-approved methods and, without being too critical, it takes a long time for a new method to become approved by the EPA,” he says. “Just because some latest and greatest technology is out today, we probably wouldn’t be using it for years, until the method is set up, validated, and approved by the EPA.”

Paul adds that the lab faces financial challenges as well. As a fee-based laboratory, revenues are unpredictable, so they have to be smart with budgeting. “We have to sustain ourselves by being financially sound, keeping an eye on the integrity of our financial status, and ensuring that we’re living within our respective budgets,” Paul explains. They stick to those budgets and overcome other challenges by making sure they are getting the biggest bang for their buck and by getting input from others in the lab.

Past, present, and future

In the past, repetitive tasks and high organic solvent use were issues faced in the environmental field. Automation has taken over those rote tasks, Leu says of major industry changes, and far less solvent is needed for testing. He adds that things are a lot safer. “When I first started out, I worked on a college campus. When we had excess organic solvent, it was put on a steam table and up the stack it went, so the answer to pollution was dilution,” he says. “Nowadays, we don’t get by with that. You save all your organic solvent, and when you get a certain amount, someone comes and collects it.”

For Leu’s lab specifically, reporting results is going to get a lot easier as they upgrade to a new LIMS called Element from Promium.

Main Instruments and Technologies

  • Promium Element LI MS
  • Variety of GC systems that use both electron capture detectors and selective detectors
  • LC systems that use UV-Vis and fluorescence
  • Post-column derivatization
  • LC-MS-MS
  • IC
  • Inductively coupled plasma
  • Coulometric system for doing nutrient analysis
  • Microwave digestion
  • Ovens and refrigerators

“We had an approximately ten-year old LIMS, but the company went bankrupt, so there was no support for it,” he says. “Luckily, we had an in-house IT person who could do a few upgrades, but we were getting left behind as far as reporting out some of the results.”

The new LIMS will allow them to scan received paperwork to include in their final reports along with QA/QC requirements, instrument worksheets, and instrument data—tasks they used to have to do by hand.

“The biggest change for us is that our QC/QA is out there. We’re able to track it, we’re able to graph trends, and see if our spike recoveries, for example, are blowing down, or we have certified reference material,” Leu says. “We’re able to track our QA/QC a lot better with our new LIMS system.”

All of that will help the lab put citizens’ minds at ease about their drinking water when something goes wrong, such as with a water system breach where an entire town’s water is shut off.

“They bring a sample to you and they want to know right away. So you’re working as quickly as you possibly can, knowing that you need to get them those results back, but also knowing that those results have to be accurate results,” Paul explains. “You don’t want to send out a false positive or a false negative and then have to call back the next day and say, ‘Whoops, we made a mistake.’ A lot of samples take on a lot more significance when you’re talking about a large number of people being affected.”