Maine CDC Press Release

September 4, 2003

Health and Environmental Testing Lab Celebrates its 100th Year

Contact: Newell Augur, Director
  Office of Public and Legislative Affairs
  Department of Human Services
  11 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333
  Tel: (207) 287-1921
  TTY: (207) 287-4479

Augusta – The Department of Human Services, Bureau of Health today marked the 100th Anniversary of Maine’s Public Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory. Originally named The State Laboratory of Hygiene, the Laboratory conducts a wide variety of surveillance testing, participates in public and environmental health assessment, and provides information for policy development.

Acting DHS Commissioner Peter E. Walsh congratulated the state employees who work in the Laboratory on their unparalleled expertise and service, a defining characteristic of the Laboratory during its 100-year history. “The people of Maine have been fortunate to have the Laboratory and the dedicated and talented group of people who work there as a safeguard to our public health for the past century,” Commissioner Walsh observed. “We will depend upon these resources, just as we have in the past, in meeting the new public health challenges of the next century.”

The Laboratory began operation in September 1903. The Legislature appropriated funds for its creation after continued outbreaks of disease, particularly typhoid fever, that sanitarians and physicians believed were caused primarily by impure water. The Laboratory’s initial mandates included assisting local communities in the testing of water samples, designing ways to improve drinking water quality and testing for clinical infectious diseases. Over time, the Laboratory’s involvement in public health protection has grown to include work with hazardous wastes, forensics and national security.

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Dora Anne Mills, MD, MPH, Director of the Bureau of Health, noted that the history of the Laboratory parallels many of the changes in public health and the health care system. “The Laboratory continues to be a vital partner in our ongoing efforts to combat disease and environmental contamination,” Dr. Mills stated, “as well as our new initiatives for public health emergency preparedness.” Recent examples of this include the critical role of the Laboratory in the anthrax attacks of 2001 and the arsenic poisoning incident in New Sweden earlier this year.

The earliest public health functions involved testing for bacteria in drinking water and diagnosing local epidemics, such as the typhoid and cholera outbreaks in that occurred in many Maine cities at the turn of the century. More recently, the mission of public health laboratories has expanded and the Laboratory has been an integral part of the response to emerging public health challenges. Examples include syphilis testing in the 1930’s and 40’s, polio in the 50’s, environmental issues in the 60’s, Legionnaire’s disease and drug testing in the 70’s, HIV in the 80’s, new infectious diseases such as West Nile virus and Lyme Disease in the 90’s, and now bio and chemical terrorism in the 21st century.

Jack Krueger, who has served as Laboratory Director since 1997, noted that in spite of all the changes in public health over the past century, the challenges today mirror many of the older epidemics that were significant challenges 100 years ago. “The Laboratory was testing for small pox and tuberculosis when it first opened,” Krueger noted, “and these issues have once again become public concern, particularly with respect to national security. In that respect,” Krueger added, “the significance of the Laboratory should be measured by focusing not only on single-issue themes, but also on its capability to be a balanced partner in the public health system.”

Krueger is responsible for a Laboratory staff of 70 people that is comprised of scientists with expertise in one of three subspecialties: microbiology, environmental chemistry and forensics. The Laboratory is located in the basement of the DHS Administrative Building across from the State House.