Special Topics in Environmental Management

How to Find the Right Testing Lab

If you run an operation that generates pollution—or if you are responsible for reducing pollution that comes from somewhere else, as with public wastewater treatment plants or public drinking water systems—you likely use or will at some point need to obtain the services of an environmental testing lab.

In some ways, finding the right lab is no different than finding the right event caterer or accountant. You get recommendations from people you trust; you look at the lab’s marketing materials, capabilities, experience, and references; you compare prices; and perhaps you even get a tour of the facility. Does that give you all the information you need to make a decision? Perhaps it does, but it may not. The problem is that environmental testing involves a level of technical expertise that most compliance managers do not have. That puts managers in somewhat of a disadvantage in selecting a lab, and it is a disadvantage that should be reduced as much as possible. If your lab provides you with erroneous results, there may be two consequences. One, if the results of lab testing are used to demonstrate compliance and they are wrong, you (not the lab) may be found in violation of environmental laws and regulations and get slapped with a penalty and all the negative implications that carries. Or, two, the reverse is that you may find yourself complying with regulations and shouldering pollution control measures when you don’t have to.

We are not suggesting here that compliance managers must have chemistry or biology degrees to ensure that they know which lab is right for them and are able to fully comprehend the product they are buying. However, it may be necessary for managers to be more deliberate in selecting a laboratory to analyze samples than when retaining other types of services. The EPA, state agencies, and some industry associations provide guidance on how to choose an environmental testing lab that meets your qualifications. To start, we recommend looking at an EPA document called Selecting an Environmental Laboratory, which goes into some detail about how to screen environmental labs according to your specific needs. Here are a few salient points the EPA makes.


Does the lab have experience analyzing the types of samples (e.g., water, drinking water, waste water, sediment, soil, fish tissue) that you want analyzed? Does the lab perform the specific analyses that you require? Some laboratories may be niche organizations specializing in analyses based on either a particular matrix (e.g., drinking water) or a particular analyte (e.g., pesticides, dioxin). Others are full-service organizations that can handle many types of media and analytes. Most labs will perform routine surface water or groundwater analyses. Two types of water analyses not always available at every laboratory include organic chemistry methods for drinking water compliance analyses (as these methods require a laboratory to handle reporting at the low detection limits) and dioxin analyses (as these methods require special reagents, instruments, and expertise).


Is the lab certified in your state, and does the certification include the types of sample media/matrices and analyses you require? Some state certifications cover only drinking water, while others may cover many different solid wastes, water, hazardous waste, etc. Always ask what the state certification covers. Many states also participate in the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (NELAP). This program attempts to ensure national uniformity in accreditations and involves a more detailed review than most state certification programs.


Does the lab have the capacity to handle your samples on the schedule you need? Does it have sufficient instruments (and backup instruments in case of instrument failure) and personnel to handle the anticipated sample load? Most labs can handle, on average, less than 40 samples without a problem. However, if you need a larger number of samples analyzed at one time and for a variety of analytical parameters, you should get firm assurance that the lab can handle this workload. For example, a laboratory may have capacity to analyze 60 metals analyses (as these are relatively fast and involve minimal preparation), but it might not be able to analyze 60 pesticide or semivolatile organic compound analyses (as these require more time-consuming sample preparation steps, as well as longer analysis time) in a specific time frame.

Other factors to consider include location, turnaround time, the lab’s quality assurance/quality control plan, qualifications of staff, chain of custody of samples, record retention, contents of the report you will receive, and whether the lab be subcontracting out any portion of your work.