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Lab Units

Lab Units

King County Environmental Lab

There are eight units at the Environmental Lab:

Laboratory Project Management

The Laboratory Project Managers (LPMs) are the focal point for coordination between the Lab and our customers. LPMs work with customers to understand project goals, and assist in determining specific sampling, chemistry, toxicology and microbiology testing requirements. They provide project planning, technical and regulatory consultation, procurement of contract laboratory or other technical services, and final report generation.

During the planning process, LPMs work with our customers to scope and schedule Lab support to each customer. This project information is typically documented in sampling and analysis plans (SAPs). The SAPs enable the Lab and the customer to know exactly what work will be done, when it will be done, and the roles and responsibilities of the project team members. LPMs monitor the progress of projects to ensure timely completion, coordinate the Lab’s response to project changes, and help ensure that the right type and quality of data are generated for each project.

Field Science Unit

Field scientists in the Field Science Unit use a variety of equipment and techniques to obtain samples truly representative of the environment. The scientists conduct a variety of sampling and field data collection including: water column sampling in marine and fresh water; sediment sampling in Puget Sound and Lake Washington; and storm sampling of combined sewer overflows, rivers and streams. They also collect wastewater samples at the sewage treatment plants, conduct groundwater well sampling, do surface water sampling at biosolids forest application sites, and perform studies of currents in Puget Sound using doppler current meters, drift cards, and dye studies. The scientists also collect marine, lake, and stream benthos samples for taxonomic identification, and utilize moored buoy systems in Lake Washington and Puget Sound to collect water column data profiles.

Specialized equipment utilized by Field Science Unit includes a 48-foot research vessel, "Liberty", and 24-foot research vessel "Chinook", both of which are moored at the Lab’s waterfront site. These vessels collect Puget Sound water and sediments using specialized sampling bottles or sediment grabs lowered from hydraulic cranes. Other collection equipment includes automatic samplers that can be installed in storm drains or sewer lines, and special pumps and devices for drawing subsurface or groundwater samples. In all cases, field scientists take great care to avoid contaminating samples they collect and send to the laboratory for analysis.

Trace Metals

Trace Metals analyzes environmental, wastewater, and industrial samples for more than two dozen potentially toxic metals. Of the many metallic elements found in the environment, some such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, and copper are essential nutrients at low concentrations, but may be hazardous at higher levels. Others, like arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium are toxic even at relatively low concentrations. Trace Metals utilizes three Inductively Coupled Argon Mass Spectrometers (ICPMS’) and other highly sensitive instruments to test for trace elements at the level of parts per trillion. In addition, the lab is capable of testing for mercury at six different ranges, including ultra-trace level testing, which is conducted in a clean room. This specialized testing is not widely available, and is of particular value to King County projects requiring risk analyses.

As scientists learn more about the effects of these elements on living organisms, regulatory agencies use this information as a basis for lowering concentration limits locally as well as nationally. The Trace Metals Unit continually moves towards new techniques and instrumentation to accurately test at these lower detection limits.

Trace Organics

Trace Organics measures trace levels of organic (carbon-containing) compounds found in air, liquids, or solids. The unit routinely analyzes for federally designated priority pollutants and hazardous substances such as pesticides, PCBs, volatile solvents, byproducts of fuel combustion and other potentially toxic or hazardous organic contaminants. Additionally, Trace Organics has developed analytical techniques to analyze for endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) and other analytes that are being used to evaluate the health of our lakes, streams, and Puget Sound.

Trace Organics utilizes four Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometers (GCMS’) and other sophisticated instrumentation to "fingerprint" and identify unknown organic compounds in a matter of seconds. The fingerprint, called a spectrum, can be searched against a library containing reference spectra for more than 100,000 potentially toxic organics.


Conventionals analyzes over 30 inorganic parameters that are indicators of water quality. Tests for turbidity, dissolved oxygen and pH, and measurements of ultra low level nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, alert scientists to changes in the ecological balance of area waters. In addition to water quality measurements on samples from regional waters, Conventionals measures cyanide and Biochemical Oxygen Demand in municipal and industrial discharges, analyzes for several parameters in biosolids, soils and sediments and characterizes contaminated drainage from construction sites.

Conventionals is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and automated instrumentation capable of measuring environmental quality indicators with high precision and accuracy. The specialty of the unit is ultra-low level nutrients using segmented flow analysis techniques.


Microbiology analyzes environmental samples from waters, wastewaters, sediment, and tissue for indicator and pathogenic bacteria, viruses, algae, and fungi. Virological analyses for enteric viruses and parasite analyses are regularly performed on wastewater and solid samples. These data are used primarily to help monitor recycled products such as Biosolids and reclaimed water, to assure that these products pose no risks to the environment. Algae identifications are performed to assist limnologists in monitoring County lakes and surface waters.

Microbiology is conversant in multiple methods for quantitative and qualitative recovery of indicator as well as pathogenic bacteria. Microbiologists often work with project managers and health officials in applying the data to develop risk assessments, and to make judgments such as the appropriate time to close public beaches. Current instrumentation, equipment and facilities enable Microbiology to respond quickly to emergent needs, including beach or shellfish contaminations. Microbiology has also expanded its abilities to include some genetically-based methods, in order to better identify the source of particular pathogens. This new technology will be helpful in efforts to reduce contamination by controlling its origin rather than just measuring the extent of the problem.

Aquatic Toxicology

Aquatic Toxicology conducts toxicity tests by exposing freshwater or marine aquatic organisms (algae, tiny shrimp, and rainbow trout fry) to environmental samples such as treatment plant discharges or sediment, and then monitoring the organism's response. This information helps King County understand the impact of pollutants on the local aquatic environment, and to comply with National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit and Washington State Sediment Management Standards. Follow-up testing, using EPA's Toxicity Identification Evaluation (TIE) procedures can be used to identify the causes of toxicity in complex environmental samples.

In addition to toxicity testing Aquatic Toxicology specializes in using Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assays (ELISA) to measure chemical concentrations and blue-green algae toxins in the environment. ELISA based assays are also used to test for EDCs in the environment.

Quality Assurance Program

The mission of the Quality Assurance (QA) program is to establish and maintain standardized practices for sample collection and analysis that meet the goals and expectations of our clients. The quality of the Lab’s operations and data are audited regularly by the Lab Accreditation Program of the Washington Department of Ecology.  Accreditation also requires routine analysis of blind Performance Evaluation (PE) samples. The Lab’s rating on these independent PE samples averages 98-100% accuracy, well above industry standards.

In addition to maintaining accreditation with regulatory agencies, the Lab’s QA program provides multiple internal checks such as routine audits by the Lab’s QA officer of method performance and adherence to QA policies and standard operating procedures. These policies and procedures are documented in the Lab’s QA Manual and SOPs.

Information Systems and Data Analysis

Each year, the Lab collects and processes thousands of environmental samples. Those samples, after analysis, become several million pieces of discrete data. The Lab’s Information Systems and Data Analysis (ISDA) unit uses a computerized Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) to track the status of samples as they enter the Lab, move through analysis in the various Lab areas, and store the final data that is generated. LIMS runs on a state-of-the-art computer system with an underlying Oracle database, and contains several decades of environmental data. In addition, ISDA supports and maintains the software applications and systems pertaining to the data management functions of the Lab, including interfaces between analytical instrumentation and the network. A web-based interface (LIMSView), designed and developed by ISDA, enables customers to access the data on LIMS in multiple formats, and retrieve it more easily.

For questions about this Web page, please contact Diane McElhany, Environmental Programs Section Manager, King County Environmental Lab.