MDH internal review finds evidence of misconduct by laboratory employee

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MDH reviewing potentially impacted water results; Worker removed from duties pending investigation

A Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) internal review process has found evidence of improper laboratory practices on the part of an employee in the MDH Public Health Laboratory. While initial review indicates the allegedly improper work was limited to one employee and did not present a significant and immediate public health risk, it raises questions about the reliability of some water testing data used by MDH’s Environmental Health Division and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for projects going back to at least May 2013.

In response, MDH removed the employee from lab duties and is bringing in external reviewers to conduct a thorough investigation. The initial focus is on 2,200 analyses conducted by the employee between May 2013 and May 2015. That is approximately 0.7 percent of the 325,000 total analyses performed during that time by the employee’s section of the lab. The department is reprocessing the employee’s sample analyses to ensure that the results are accurate and reliable.

According to MDH Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, top priority will be given to reprocessing analyses associated with public water systems. The department has grouped projects and sites with suspect results into tiers based on the potential impact of flawed results. Those results considered most sensitive will be reanalyzed first. The top-priority group includes five public water supply systems (Edina, St. Louis Park, Spring Park, Kasota, and Brooklyn Center), several private drinking wells in Baytown Township and adjacent areas of Washington County, and private wells near the Lindala Sanitary Landfill site in Wright County.

“We are concerned about this situation and we are making every effort – including contracting for outside laboratory assistance – to reanalyze the work as quickly as possible,” Commissioner Ehlinger said. “We have an obligation to provide sound, science-based information to our partners and the public.”

The alleged misconduct involved analysis of drinking water and untreated groundwater and surface water. The samples were run to look for volatile organic compounds, and gasoline and diesel products. The evidence indicates the employee did not follow proper procedures to verify instrument calibration, and avoided quality control steps that may have generated weaker, less defensible results. No motive has been identified.

MDH is taking multiple steps to prevent future misconduct. This includes external audits, closer supervision of analysts, and more robust internal review processes. The department will also be reviewing training, practices and procedures to determine what other changes may be warranted. More information is available on the MDH website at www.health.state.mn.us and updates will be provided as available.

 

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