Photo: Eau Claire City-County team (from l to r) Ted Johnson, Savannah Bergman, Sue Arndt and Shane Sanderson.
Nancy Maddox, MPH, writer
The city of Eau Claire, situated 90 miles east of the Twin Cities, was established in 1845 at the confluence of two of those rivers, the Eau Claire (pronounced O’Clare) and the Chippewa. The site met the needs of the city’s founders, lumber barons who used the waterways to carry white pine to the Mississippi River.
Today, many of the lumber mills are silent, the buzz saws replaced by keyboards at next generation firms like Hutchinson Technology and Open-Silicon. But the barons’ ornate Victorian homes remain, and so does the post-glacial terrain, which now yields up tons of “frac sand,” the perfect size and shape for use in the natural gas fracking industry.
The local geology, said Shane Sanderson, MS, JD, REHS, who heads Eau Claire City-County Health Department’s environment health division, poses its own environmental challenge. The city-county jurisdiction of roughly 100,000 relies almost entirely on groundwater, and its two sandstone aquifers are extremely vulnerable to contamination.
“If you filled a mason jar with sand and add a drop of food coloring, you can see how quickly it flows right down to the bottom of the jar,” he said. “Similarly, if a tanker tips over on I-94, we’re a lot more concerned here than in Madison, where they have clay soil. If we let that [spill] sit for three days, it’s already too late; it’s probably coming up in someone’s well.”
On a lighter note, he observed that every community has its eccentricities too. In Eau Claire it is kubb, a Swedish lawn game brought by early residents and still celebrated at the US National Kubb Championships, which are contested here each summer. The county is also notable as the 23rd “brainiest” US city (according to Lumosity).
The environmental health laboratory, a BSL-2 facility, takes up 1,200 square feet on the ground floor of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department in downtown Eau Claire. The laboratory just completed a full remodel of its chemistry laboratory and plans to renovate its environmental health field team area in 2017 and its microbiology lab in 2018.
Leadership and Staff
Sanderson is a son of the Midwest, born near Milwaukee, raised in a small town in northern Wisconsin and educated at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. After earning two degrees there—a BA in history and environmental science and a MS in environmental science and public health—he decamped to the University of Oregon-Eugene to pursue a law degree.
“Halfway through the JD program,” said Sanderson, “I realized I didn’t want to be someone who swoops down and redistributes resources after something goes wrong; I wanted to prevent something from going wrong.” Instead of taking the bar exam, he accepted a position as a health inspector in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In 2008, he went to Madison to manage recreational waters for the state of Wisconsin. A hefty public sector pay cut eventually forced him into the private sector, where he inspected restaurants in seven states for Darden Restaurants (whose brands include Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and other chains). In 2013 he returned to Eau Claire and to the public sector, where his career began.
“When I came back here,” said Sanderson, “my mantra was to
get to what matters; to investigate, engage, collaborate and really identify the core [environmental] challenges of this community. And, like a pit bull, go hit those challenges head on.”
There are also three, full-time laboratory employees: Ted Johnson, a chemist, and microbiologists Sue Arndt and Savannah Bergman. In addition, Sanderson employs two to three student runners to collect water and food samples: “It’s been a great opportunity to connect with the next generation of environmental professionals!”
The laboratory receives roughly $385,000 a year from an Eau Claire City-County tax levy, as well as a mix of license fees, fees-for-service and grants.
“Only half our budget is the tax levy,” said Sanderson. “I welcome private industry and nonprofit dollars too; this health department realizes we have shared goals with hospitals, insurance companies, charitable trusts and many others that can contribute resources to promote health in our community.”
He has also pursued “aggressive” increases in business permit fees, based on the view that the tax levy shouldn’t be used to support for-profit businesses. Fee increases, he said, “freed up my tax levy to do the investigative work a public health lab should be doing.”
Of the more than 21,000 analyses performed annually, most are drinking water tests, especially to measure nitrates, a big problem in the area for decades. Other test matrices include recreational water, sewage effluence, ambient air, foods (TC and plate counts), soft serve ice cream, ice and ice cream machines, tattoo parlor autoclaves (for sterility verification), animals (for rabies) and various samples tested for methamphetamine or lead. The laboratory also traps and speciates mosquitos.
Sanderson prefers to focus on high-value testing and collaborations rather than high-volume, low-yield tests. “We were doing total coliforms on all swimming pools,” he said. “But if there’s any chlorine in the water at all, it’s likely going to come back negative. So why do the test?” Now, the lab team concentrates on the highest risk pool basins—hot tubs and children’s wading pools—and test for
Pseudomonas, an organism that can tolerate chlorine, if given a chance to grow. “We went from 600 low-value pool tests to about 250 high-value tests, and added interventions to help pool managers better maintain their facilities.”
“We’re just a little local lab that’s fighting for its community,” said Sanderson. “We’re trying to take on things that are bigger than us—the big, wicked problems that require a lot of partnerships. That’s what we want to celebrate.” Here are a few examples.
- Securing funding from the
Wisconsin Department of Health Services to buy a RT-PCR for a survey of Lyme disease infection rates in ticks in local recreational areas. Laboratory data has already shown that about 35% of tested ticks—and as many as 50% in some areas—carry the Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. Findings have started a conversation about interventions with city and county parks, schools, hospitals and other groups to reduce tick exposure and assure swift treatment for the exposed.
- Exploring phytoremediation using Indian mustard to reduce lead levels in contaminated soils.
- An ongoing effort to identify and eliminate point sources of nitrates. The division sent a direct mailing to local residents, urging them to have well water tested for nitrates (at a significantly discounted price) and, if neces- sary, to install a reverse osmosis system in their homes. Yet, Sanderson said, “I don’t think the answer is having reverse osmosis systems installed on all 9,000 private water wells that have to be maintained every year. We want to go after the sources.” So the laboratory is now (1) using the ArcGIS platform to map nitrate and lead levels throughout the community and (2) partnering with county land conservation officials to convince farmers to test their groundwater for nitrate contamination, which may stem from use of agricultural chemicals.
- “Staff size and space will always be public-sector challenges: we have many, many years of projects ahead of us!”
- “Locally emerging pathogens, like Naegleria fowleri (aka the ‘brain-eating amoeba’), are moving into our area and have even taken lives as near to us as Minnesota; these emerging threats rarely wait for political processes and budget committees to react before threatening human health.”
- “Breaking out of that old government paradigm, that bureaucratic construct that inhibits us from moving quickly, being flexible and taking on new projects.”
- “Selling the message that prevention is always the best use of time and resources.”
Sanderson’s overarching goal is to use the laboratory as the proactive, science-based driver for the division’s field work, by identifying public health threats. At the moment, two issues have captured his attention:
- Exploring the role of RT-PCR and gel electrophoresis in the food laboratory to not only detect bacterial contamination on swab and food samples, but to “zero in” on specific problem pathogens. “We are in a new world, with food coming from everywhere. If we detect Listeria on a leafy green, what do we do with that? It’s time for even local labs to ask,
What is our role?”
- Antibiotic resistance. “I want someone to buy me an LC-MS/MS for more complete pharmaceutical testing; not because pharmaceuticals are making someone sick, but because they’re killing bacteria in our groundwater, and it’s a weak kill that is giving rise to superbugs. We’re going to be talking about that every day in 2025.”