MDH updates water sample procedures

After the Flint water crisis, Minnesota’s health dept. has changed some of its practices.

Eliana Schreiber

Recent events like the Flint, Mich., water crisis are forcing government officials nationwide to take precautions about water safety.
 
 
To comply with federal guidelines set for drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Minnesota Department of Health recently implemented changes to its water sampling procedures.
 
 
Last fall, the department noticed inconsistent practices in the public health laboratory that affected water samples, MDH Environmental Health Division Director Tom Hogan said. According to lab data, the department did not maintain the correct temperature requirements when transporting samples.
 
 
Minnesota is usually a leader in water safety and the news was surprising, said University of Minnesota Water Resources Center Associate Director Faye Sleeper.
 
 
Risk in these types of incidents depends on the type of contaminants in the water samples, Sleeper said.
 
 
“The testing techniques matter for sure,” Sleeper said. “I think the good news is they’re going to go back and resample using the drinking water protocol of the EPA.”
 
 
The guidelines require samples be maintained at four degrees Celsius, plus or minus a few degrees on either side, Hogan said. 
 
 
The rule exists so nothing in the water’s composition changes between when it’s sampled and when it’s analyzed, said University Environmental Health Sciences Professor Matt Simcik. 
 
 
Keeping the water at the set temperature allows researchers to get an accurate reading.
 
 
The four degree Celsius threshold seems somewhat arbitrary, he said, but it’s used because it is the temperature of the water at the bottom of lakes.
 
 
“I don’t anticipate a big issue with it,” Simcik said. “And to be honest, there’s not a whole lot of … changing going on.”
 
 
The data identified several compounds and substances that posed a risk to humans, Hogan said. Overall, MDH tests for more than 100 contaminants, Sleeper said.
 
 
“They’re generally fertilizers, solvents and some common household chemicals,” Hogan said.
 
 
Solvents tend to be the contaminants that have a higher risk, Simcik said, adding that EPA guidelines require cold water to prevent bad reactions from happening.
 
 
“If it gets warm enough, you can actually have reactions occur where it breaks down, and you may not see it, but it was present in the water,” he said.
 
 
Over the past couple of decades, MDH has focused mainly on the methodology of sampling and hasn’t stepped back to see why they weren’t complying with the federal guidelines, which have been in place since the early 1990s, Hogan said.
 
 
MDH is retraining its staff on the proper processes and inspecting equipment to ensure there are no future problems during transportation to the laboratory, Hogan said. 
 
 
Still, there’s no reason for major concern about Twin Cities water safety right now, he said.
 
 
“There’s no real connection to what is happening in Flint,” Hogan said. “The timing of what we discovered here was just purely coincidental, more than anything 
else.”