AUGUSTA – About 10 days after an earthquake struck northern Japan in March, a small sensor on the roof of an office building here detected trace amounts of radioactive iodine.

Three floors below, chemists in the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory kept watch over the next few weeks until the radiation harmlessly dissipated.

The radiation didn’t cause much of a stir at the lab, where old-timers remember seeing much higher radiation levels after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986. Besides, there was plenty of other important business to attend to, such as contaminated groundwater, disease-carrying mosquitoes, food-borne illness outbreaks, rabid raccoons, heroin and crack cocaine seizures and the occasional white powder anthrax scare.

The basement and first floor of the Department of Health and Human Services building is home to what may be the most fascinating and important operation of state government that you will never see. The laboratory is actually a labyrinth of small labs, some with half-million-dollar scanners and robots and others with old-fashioned beakers, test tubes and Bunsen burners.

All parts of the lab are securely locked away, off limits to the public and to cameras. The security is the result of the sensitive work under way for police departments, drug enforcement and intelligence agencies and an anti-terrorism partnership with the federal Centers for Disease Control.

“(The CDC agreement) allows us to keep on hand the positive control materials that we use to test for agents that would likely be used in a bioterror event,” said Kenneth Pote, the lab’s director. Just which agents are “on hand,” he isn’t saying.

“I can’t tell you,” he said. “And I can’t tell you where it’s kept.”

Yet, the lab is tucked away in plain sight, across the street from the state Capitol.

Maine has had a state public health lab ever since a cholera outbreak in 1902 made it necessary to test drinking water supplies.

What has evolved in the century since then is a diverse operation that plays a key role in protecting Mainers from epidemics, environmental contamination and food-borne illnesses, such as the ongoing E. coli outbreak that has killed at least 30 people and sickened thousands in Europe.

In fact, the Maine lab is part of a national science and response network set up to prevent the kind of large-scale health emergency that is still mystifying scientists in Europe.

About three to five times each week, someone in Maine gets food poisoning serious enough to go to a doctor or hospital and have a stool sample tested for potential pathogens, such as salmonella or E. coli. The hospital starts a culture of the mystery organism on a petri dish and then delivers the dish to the lab for identification.

Chemists at the lab can quickly identify salmonella, for example, using expensive instruments that break down DNA fragments and create a genetic fingerprint. The fragment patterns are then entered into a national database for comparison and tracking.

“Some bugs are really difficult to identify,” Pote said. “When you get a tough case, this really helps save a lot of time.”

The same testing can then be done on the food source, although it can be tricky for state epidemiologists to track down the culprit.

“It’s very hard to trace back to what the food was because people have really spotty memories about what they ate and what they ate where,” Pote said.

Maine’s lab is on the lookout for the rare strain of E. coli causing the historic European outbreak. A few cases have shown up in the United States in people who traveled to Germany, but none in Maine.

The 62 people working in the lab are involved in dozens of public health efforts.

“It’s a very diverse lab. It’s pretty amazing,” said Dr. Sheila Pinette, who toured the lab recently after taking over as head of Maine’s Center for Disease Control. “These people are just so proud of what they do and they have these surroundings that aren’t that glorious.”

They test 15,000 child blood samples each year for lead poisoning. And they test water and seaweed, as well as the air, to make sure no radiation is leaking from the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire or the former Maine Yankee nuclear plant site in Wiscasset.

In the summer, they test ground up mosquitoes for EEE and West Nile virus. Winters, meanwhile, are a busy time for testing influenza specimens and tracking any changes in the virus strains.

One small room in the lab has an examination table used to dissect the brains of potentially rabid raccoons and other critters.

Another room has a robot that efficiently tests thousands of urine samples for gonorrhea and chlamydia.

In one of the most secure sections of the lab, a chemist handles a small packet containing chunks of crack cocaine. Drug agents seized the packet and brought it in for a forensic analysis.

Chemists here have witnessed the exploding abuse of prescription painkillers, and have an intimate knowledge of Maine’s drug habits, including methamphetamine in the north, heroin in central Maine and cocaine in the southern part of the state.

“In the state of Maine, we have a very diverse drug market,” said Christopher Montagna, supervisor of the forensic section.

One recent police raid in Calais, for example, brought in what turned out to be a couple of pounds of chocolate-covered hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Not everything the lab does is highly sensitive or potentially dangerous: testing horse urine, for example.

A refrigerated case in one room is lined with small glass beakers containing the urine of harness-racing horses. Chemists test the urine of every purse-winning horse in the state to rule out the use of performance-enhancing drugs. They also randomly test the urine of losing horses to make sure they have not been given drugs that might slow them down.

The horse urine tests, like private water tests and some other services, are not done at taxpayer expense, according to Pote.

The overall budget of the lab is $7.5 million a year. About 12 percent of that is funded by the state, while 35 percent is from federal funding and the rest is from fees and dedicated revenues, Pote said.

All of the routine environmental and biological testing also has a less obvious purpose: preparing for an epidemic, terrorist attack or some other emergency.

“A lot of the stuff we do is sort of being ready for an event in case it happens. Doing these things on a regular basis keeps us ready for that,” said Patrick Boudreau, whose job includes monitoring radiation in the air drifting over the DHHS building.

Terrorism isn’t just a theoretical possibility to the chemists who work here.

The lab, for example, helped respond to the arsenic poisoning of 15 people in New Sweden in 2003. In 2008, it helped to respond to the discovery in Belfast of instructions and materials that were being used to prepare a radiological “dirty bomb.” Police discovered the operation after the would-be bomb maker, alleged to have links to white supremacists, was shot by his wife.

And then there are the occasional white powder incidents, which continue at a rate of several a year, a decade after deadly anthrax attacks caused a national wave of false alarms.

Some of the more recent incidents attract public notice, such as when white powder was mailed to then-Gov. John Baldacci with a threatening note in December 2008, or when white powder was discovered in the baggage claim area of the Portland International Jetport in September 2009. Most are quietly resolved.

The powder found in Maine has so far always turned out to be something harmless, such as corn starch, sugar or flour. But the lab is always ready.

“We have to treat each one as if it is real,” Pote said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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