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About twenty health workers rallied outside the city’s Public Health Laboratory on First Avenue on Tuesday to protest the decision by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to close a lab devoted to testing blood for lead poisoning. But they weren’t looking out for their jobs. They all will remain employed at the Health Department in other positions. They’re worried about who will do their work once it’s removed from their care.

The Health Department plans to close the lab July 1 in order to save $300,000 and streamline operations, Deputy Health Commissioner Isaac Weisfuse said. Although public hospitals run by the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) presently send nearly all of their lead blood samples to the Public Health Lab to be tested, when the lab closes the HHC will be responsible for doing the tests itself.

But the lab’s employees contend that’s not good enough. They assert the Public Health Laboratory is needed because it’s the only one in the city to devote all of its staff and equipment to testing for lead poisoning. Its employees are proud of their work. “Our proficiency is always perfect,” said Ruth Katz, an associate chemist who just retired from the lab. Other labs deal with many more kinds of tests and suffer from a “lack of dedicated facilities,” according to Jon Forster, first vice president of DC 37’s Local 375, which represents the lab employees.

“Jobs were why we were initially involved in this,” but once the union received assurance that the jobs were safe, it stayed involved solely out of concern for public health, Forster said.

The lab tests a total of about 95,000 samples per year, most of which come from children between six months and two years old. City law requires that all children be tested for lead poisoning at least twice before age three – though by most calculations, the law is only followed for about one third of children. The children who go to the HHC hospitals for tests tend to come from low-income families. Private hospitals run lead testing in their own laboratories or send samples to private companies.

Weisfuse said the Health Department wants the First Avenue lab to focus on providing services that are not widely available elsewhere, such as testing for the West Nile virus or rabies. “It really fills an important niche not filled by any other laboratory,” he said. Lead testing, by contrast, is widely available elsewhere. Weisfuse also said that the Health Department will retain some of the equipment used in the lab, as well as transferring all of its staff to other positions in the department, so that testing could be resumed “in an emergency.” Most of the equipment, however, will go to HHC facilities so it can do its own lead testing.

According to James Saunders, director of public affairs at Bellevue Hospital Center, the HHC is up to the challenge. A handful of Manhattan’s public hospitals, known collectively as the South Manhattan Network, already handle their own tests. Most blood samples from HHC hospitals will go to Kings County Hospital or to Bellevue, which houses “one of the largest non-commercial laboratories on the east coast,” Saunders said, and “can handle more.” He said any remaining tests will be handled by a commercial laboratory, which has not yet been chosen. “The transition will be seamless,” Saunders said. “Patient safety and quality standards will not be compromised.”

While Katz and Forster from Local 375 are skeptical about private labs’ ability to pick up the burden, one such facility says it would not be difficult. Gary Samuels, vice president of media relations at Quest Diagnostic, one of the largest private testing companies, said that Quest’s labs run various tests on 50,000 blood samples each day, so it could easily absorb 95,000 more lead tests over a year. But what worries Katz and Forster is that those tests won’t get the same attention they do in the Health Department’s lab.

-Brendan Pierson

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