For many, the word “bureau” conquers up images of suit-clad men and women brandishing firearms and badges. But in Philadelphia, employees of another type of bureau are also protecting the public — using science.
More than 120 biologists, chemists, engineers, and technicians work at the Philadelphia Water Department's Bureau of Laboratory Services (BLS), an environmental and materials analysis laboratory that oversees the safety of drinking water, wastewater, source water, sediment, sludge, and related media.
But BLS is more than just your typical water testing lab.
“At BLS, it isn’t just about collecting samples and finding out the results,” said BLS director Gary Burlingame. “As a lab, we get involved in upcoming research, new regulations, and solving the problems facing the water industry. We want to look at the big picture, and if you are stuck focusing on individual samples, you lose that.”
BLS is one of the larger water analysis labs in the country, doubling in size since it was first formed in 1981. Originally, different sections of the lab were in different building, but in 1992 the BLS moved all its services under one roof. By placing teams that monitor things like the health of the river side-by-side with those that respond to drinking water contamination risks, BLS can take a more comprehensive approach to solving the challenges concerning the water industry.
“By working together, we can prepare the way for advancements in technology, gather the quality data we need to make decisions about our future, and solve water quality problems,” explained Burlingame.
BLS tests nearly every type of water in all stages of treatment, teaming up with regulatory organizations like the EPA, as well as other city entities like the health department.
The lab collaborates with regional agencies to monitor the quality of the watershed, determine water safety risk, and help them work to comply with all regulations. It tests all the materials that are used to store and transport water — from the distribution pipes to water mains — to guarantee that nothing impacts the water quality. Monitoring lead and copper levels, which have recently become more highly regulated, is also a priority for BLS, along with monitoring phosphorus and nitrogen levels, which can lead to toxic algae growth.
“We get pretty involved in the water department,” said Burlingame. “We are the water quality heart of the city.”
BLS aims to bring water to the highest possible standard, utilizing cutting-edge technology to detect disinfection byproducts (DBPs), organic compounds, pharmaceuticals, and other emerging contaminants, in even the smallest concentrations. The lab has a trained panel of taste and odor experts who use their noses and tongues to detect certain imperfections in Philadelphia’s water.
The organization also gets involved in a significant amount of research, said Burlingame.
“We are always trying to stay involved and participating, if possible, in the latest studies, “he said. “We never want to become static.”
BLS recently completed a project using an EPA grant that aims to help utilities develop warning systems that can detect potential contaminants before they become a problem. It is also very involved in research into understanding the impact of unregulated contaminants on the water supply.
That commitment to staying up-to-date improves the safety of the water for Philadelphia’s ratepayers. But sharing what BLS has learned with the public can sometimes be a challenge, Burlingame explained.
“Over the last 100 years, the ability of scientists to detect things in our environmental at lower and lower levels has greatly improved, and that is very exciting,” he said. “But the challenge is, what do we do with that knowledge, and even more challenging, how do we explain our decisions to the ratepayers? It is important for people to understand water and wastewater.”
In a time when a plethora of true and untrue information is available online, Burlingame and the team at Philadelphia Water Authority must work to make sure their ratepayers have the correct information about their water. This has caused the role of BLS to evolve into both a laboratory and an expert source ratepayers can turn to.
“We have to be more public now,” Burlingame said. “We want our customers to come to us first when they have questions about water. What we do is more than just about science now. It is about communicating that science to the public.”
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