A memoir by Joe Kuntz firstname.lastname@example.org
The Joy of Work
Loving What I Did and Making a Difference
In order to expand the areas where shellfish could be collected, the Water Pollution Control Department (this is what the sewage treatment plant called themselves) embarked on a massive undertaking to find sewer lines not connected to the treatment plant and emptying directly into the sound through the storm drains. As I was the only person certified to test the shellfish beds in the city or for that matter even neighboring towns, much of this testing fell to me. I was becoming valuable, and that gave me a sense of pride.
Sometimes the information garnered by our work lead to conclusions, that despite my best efforts, were faulty. Such was the consequences as we became involved in the effects of a heavy, flooding rainstorm. A large country club, on well water, brought samples into the lab because the water did not taste right. There were bacteria, but the odor was odd, and I asked the environmental personnel to collect samples that we could send to the state lab for more tests. What they found was a sunken storage room used for various fertilizers and pesticides, but also housed the well "pit", the place where the well reached the surface. A well pit, not recommended, but common is a large hole, usually lined with rock and covered with a concrete slab. The various items stored in the room dissolved and were washed into the well and all of it was in the sample we sent to the state. Orders were issued for the well to be sealed and a new one dug at least a standard distance of 80 feet away. This would be the only well water found to have pesticides for many years, and I took this to mean that it would take special circumstances for pesticides to be introduced into a well. I always checked my thoughts, never being absolutely sure about anything, and I sent various samples to the state Lab or the Agricultural Experiment Station, and sometimes I would use unusual tests in-house, that were on the leading edge of science. With no pesticides detected in more than 40 tests, I used this as basic information for homeowners until there was better technology and the information changed.
There was still a somewhat slow time in the winter, but it was better than before, and I was busy changing more tests, trying different "standard" methods to see what would work best. I had discovered I could always order chemicals; one of our grants seemed to cover it. Some of the methods seem strange to me now, such as some very complicated and convoluted method for sodium using uranium acetate (another dangerous chemical), but I would try anything to change the odd, inaccurate methods that the lab had in place when I first came.
Forensic testing was increasing significantly, and another technician was hired strictly for that work. We started with four persons when I came, now we were six, and there was more than enough work for all of us.
At the end of July in 1986, six and one-half years after I was hired, Ralph Gofstein died without warning while on his way to his first vacation since becoming Stamford's director of health. It seemed that he had been there forever and began dozens of programs within the health department, including the lab. I was impressed by both his brilliance and passion especially when I found out he learned six different dialects of Chinese just so he could communicate with the owners of Chinese restaurants about food safety. I perceived, as did most others that he was unafraid to challenge anyone or any organization and he made public health active. I experienced this after determining the city's public water supply had an abundance of fresh water shrimp at the tap from samples brought to the lab. The lab director suggested that I bring it to the attention of the health director. He initiated a lawsuit and forced the private utility, regulated only by the state, to install a complex filtering system ending that and other problems.
I never experienced his temper, but my boss and coworkers relayed to me times they had experienced an angry outburst that lasted moments and seemed to occur about nonsensical things. I tended to approach Dr. Gofstein with a bit of fear and trepidation because of these stories, but my only experience was with his patience explaining details, his dedication to the people living in Stamford and his compassion for people around him.
How much work he actually did, most of us were unaware, but when the department heads went into his office after his death, they found incomplete applications for a seemingly innumerable number of grants. These grants were what provided the money for most of the work that the entire department did.
I was both bemused and impressed by his honesty, as his budget proposals were always a straightforward assessment of the health department's needs. This created a shortage of money for all of us to operate because the governing boards did not believe him, as all the other city departments padded their budgets and that made him the primary reason we could not get the instrumentation I felt we needed.
His appearance was somewhat disheveled, and he seemed to be disorganized, by happenstance, so was I.
What he did, how he projected himself in his job, his passion and commitment, influenced me greatly and I wanted to emulate those qualities.
He had provided the stamina and the direction of the health department, and now he was gone.
For a time, the director of Environmental Health took over as interim director.
I did not like her personally, but she was very supportive of the lab.
She gave us the one computer, an Apple, which had been in the director's office, and I immediately began using it to generate lab reports. This was the only computer in the health department and did not save data, but we had it. The lab director was not computer skilled, but encouraged me to use it as much as possible, as I had some knowledge. Later, using money from the forensic account, we would purchase a PC and a DOS database, and my rusty skills with computers came to life.
Having a computer was vital to me as we were analyzing more samples. I thought I saw patterns of high salt levels in wells near homes with water softeners. The computers and databases were invaluable to reveal those patterns and later publish my first scientific paper.
A new mayor was elected before a permanent health director was hired. He wanted to consolidate all the separated pieces of city government into one new building. He was unsure of having a working laboratory at this "government center" and was prepared to leave us at the old building. This action would have left the lab vulnerable to elimination later, and the interim director was aware of it and fought for us. We were moved along with the health department into a new laboratory on the eighth floor of this new government center. The lab was spacious, but the building was not designed to have a lab with smells and odors. The ventilation was minimal, and that would cause problems later on.
A new director was hired, and then there were new challenges and opportunities.