Lab Matters Summer 2019 - Page 15

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Small Town, Big Response: A Thanksgiving Emergency Makes a Deep Impact on Lab, Community by Martha Pings, writer The call came on a Tuesday afternoon: “We’re going to need your help with this issue.” It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and a small town was completely without water. I called all of our environmental group together,” Gunsalus remembers. “I told them a town in south Kansas wouldn’t have any water for Thanksgiving weekend. We needed to test the river and also do a full screen of the new water source. Were they in?” For N. Myron Gunsalus Jr., director of Kansas Health and Environmental Laboratories, the cascade of events that followed brought a clear sense of purpose and connection to the lab’s work. Neodesha, Kansas is a small town of about 2,500. Hours from both Topeka and Tulsa, it is nestled near the convergence of the Verdigris and Fall Rivers. The town motto, “Two rivers, no limits,” makes it clear: there is a lot of pride in this natural resource. The Verdigris River serves as a drinking water source for Neodesha as well as several communities downstream, including Independence and Coffeyville in Kansas, and Delaware, Lenapah and Nowata in Oklahoma. Earlier that Tuesday, November 22, 2016, a Neodesha chemical plant sustained an explosion. Flame and smoke billowed, visible for miles. As firefighters worked to put out the blaze, fire suppressants and other chemicals collected in ditches and made their way to the rivers. nap. The next few days were a flurry of activity: receive the samples at the airport, incubate, extract, analyze, repeat. “We glutted the bottle supply to make sure staff had all the containers they’d need. Everything would change so quickly,” Gunsalus says. Suddenly the town was without a reliable water source. Residents were warned not to use the water for any purpose—a complete shut-off. The community identified a retention pond that had been piped but not tested for use as drinking water. “I called all of our environmental group together,” Gunsalus remembers. “I told them a town in south Kansas wouldn’t have any water for Thanksgiving weekend. We needed to test the river and also do a full screen of the new water source. Were they in?” Some staff took the first overnight shift, returning to work later that day after a PublicHealthLabs @APHL The Neodesha Fire Department responds to the plant explosion. Photo: Neodesha Fire Department Microbial contaminants were of concern in the new water source. Acetone, dietheylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylene glycol, methanol, PCE and toluene were of concern in the rivers. In the midst of all this, one testing instrument failed on Thanksgiving day. Since the vendor was unavailable, the lab and regulatory team worked Thanksgiving day to resolve the issue and approve the water source. Neodesha and other towns drawing water from the Verdigris and Fall Rivers graduated from the initial “no water use” to “boil advisory” by Friday. The boil advisory was then lifted within a week of the explosion. APHL.org “This event made our testing very tangible,” Gunsalus says. “I’ve been in this work for 28 years and have never seen a team respond with such a sense of purpose as this team did. They stepped up and were awesome.” A lesson learned? “Communicate,” Gunsalus says. “It’s important to keep up on FEMA’s command system. On the health side of the lab, many think of Incident Command System, but on the environmental side it’s not so common.” In the end, Gunsalus says it’s about restoring peace to a community. “We do tests all year ‘round. We know it affects people, but it’s not always tangible to us. We’re not always able to connect that sample of water to somebody. But here it was very clear. The team stepped up and said, ‘You know, I’ll do that. I really feel good about helping these citizens. We’re stepping up, not just working hard.’” n Summer 2019 LAB MATTERS 13