The Anchorage Daily News reports that cardboard box was rushed to Anchorage’s new Environmental Health Laboratory on Thursday. It’s urgent cargo: nine geoducks.
Divers on Wednesday had plunged 40 feet down near Sitka to harvest the giant clams with bulging brown bodies. They packaged the mollusks, refrigerated them and shipped them by air to Anchorage. Here, a team of lab technicians went to work to determine if they were contaminated by the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans. People who eat tainted shellfish can develop dizziness, numbness, breathing problems, nausea and vomiting.

This winter, the lab moved from its old, outdated location in Palmer to a state-funded $15 million, 20,000-square-foot building in Anchorage. It’s one of several state laboratories involved in a long-term initiative to rebuild or redesign facilities.
Five years ago, the new $18.5 million Public Health Laboratory opened in Anchorage. Last year, the Legislature approved about $24 million to rebuild the state’s virology lab in Fairbanks. Both labs are operated through the state Department of Health and Social Services.
In December, the environmental health lab, operated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, opened right next to the public health lab just south of the intersection of Tudor Road and Boniface Parkway. In addition to studying geoducks, staff there test thousands of Alaska fish for heavy metals like mercury and examine Alaska-made milk products for bacteria and antibiotics.
The lab’s staff is hoping to soon expand to allow testing for H5N1 avian influenza, the deadly strain of bird flu detected in Asian and European countries. The virus has spread from birds to humans there, killing more than half of those with reported infections, according to international health officials. Alaska is on the avian flu radar because of its location as a crossroads for migratory bird flyways.
A number of government agencies have started surveying Alaska birds for avian influenza, but so far the testing has been completed in other laboratories.
Molecular biologist Sara Watt said the environmental health lab is preparing to bring that testing home, running tissue samples from birds. New technology that allows her to amplify DNA and look for bacteria or viruses will help detect avian flu and other harmful organisms in hours rather than days, she said.
“I think that what’s great about where we are now is there are so many other possibilities,” Watt said.
Like the old public health lab, the state’s previous environmental health lab in Palmer was no longer appropriate for the job. The building housing it used to be a grocery store, said Tom Hathaway, the lab’s chief.
That facility wasn’t able to keep up with safety standards or temperature controls, but lab tests required controlled scientific environments, he said.
Hathaway’s staffed moved from the Palmer facility to Anchorage in December. An open house is planned for later this year.
The new lab is equipped with millions of dollars in new technology, and each process needs to be validated in the new building. Updated equipment is needed because today’s tests often look for very small amounts of contaminants, sometimes measured in parts per trillion, said Dr. Bob Gerlach, the state veterinarian, now based at the environmental health lab.
“When you get down to something that small and that fine, you need to have very sensitive equipment,” he said.
The work performed at the environmental health lab will complement what’s done right next door at the public health lab, especially during an outbreak investigation. The public health lab will look at human samples for evidence of harmful bacteria like salmonella and other food-borne pathogens. The environmental health lab will look for this bacteria in environmental samples — water, soil and food — collected from the same outbreak investigation, Watt said.
Last week, lab technician Brandon Klim helped with the lab’s ongoing testing ofgeoducks. He pushed a cart of clams into a sterile laboratory and unloaded the first mollusk into the sink. He cut away the outer shell and pulled out the stomach and intestines. If the clam is contaminated with the PSP toxin, it will accumulate in the animal’s gut, Watt explained.
Klim put the intestines of three geoducks taken from the same location into a jar. He put on a pair of earmuffs before grinding the clams with a loud blender that turned the meat into a brown liquid. He then mixed in an acid. The mixture was heated and then spun fast to separate out an extract.
Later, the technicians inject the extract into the bellies of mice. If the extract contains the PSP toxin, the mouse will become ill and die. Watt’s technicians look at how soon that happens to determine the level of toxicity.
All of these steps, from the initial dissection of the geoduck to the injection of the mice, must happen in one day.
Watt said using mice to detect PSP is the laboratory standard today, but that may change as her staff determines whether a different type of chemical analysis can produce accurate results.
Gerlach, the state veterinarian, is based at the new lab to oversee special projects. He has a room to conduct necropsies, studies on animals that have died. Gerlach is also in charge of monitoring animals for certain diseases.
Horses that arrive from out of the state, for example, must be checked for a viral disease called equine infectious anemia. He watches for Johne’s disease, an intestinal disorder that can sicken ruminants like cows, sheep and goats.
Gerlach also will be watching the state’s birds for avian influenza and monitoring another large surveillance project of Alaska’s fish.
For the past few years, the Department of Environmental Conservation has worked with other state and federal agencies to sample a variety of fish species caught throughout the state. Every year, hundreds of salmon, halibut, cod, trout and other fish come into the lab. Gerlach’s staff studies them for the presence of heavy metals like mercury, lead and cadmium. They also test for pesticides and PCBs.
So far, the state has looked at limited numbers of fish and has not detected levels that would be of concern. The department says it continues the fish-monitoring project to determine if Alaska fish remain safe to eat.
Establishing a baseline for contamination levels will help the state track when conditions have become better — or worse — Gerlach said.
Last Thursday, lab technician Maureen Horne-Brine filleted a king salmon to be tested for all of these contaminants. The 18-pound fish was taken last summer from the Yukon River, frozen and then thawed last week for the test.
After placing the salmon on an oversized white cutting board, she measured its length, slit the belly with a knife and removed fillets. They were placed in a blender unit and turned into a puree. Horne-Brine then measured small amounts into containers, each to be studied for contaminant levels.
Down the hall, Watt works on another large project assigned to the environmental health lab. Alaska has about 10 farms that make milk and other dairy products including cheese, eggnog and half-and-half. This milk is often shipped to two processing plants, Matanuska Maid in Anchorage or Northern Lights Dairy in Delta Junction, Watt said.
Once a month, these processors submit samples of their milk and other products to the lab for testing. Watt and her staff look for higher-than-normal bacteria growth or the presence of antibiotics. They also measure fat content and make sure the products were properly pasteurized to kill bacteria. All of this testing is done to determine whether the milk from that lot can be sold or whether it needs to be dumped, Watt said.
The lab will also test processed foods, such as salmon strips, that are produced in Alaska and intended for sale, she said.