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Is Spore Analyst Certification Important, Available?

Dr. Harriet Burge

Director of Aerobiology

Environmental Microbiology Laboratory Inc.

San Bruno , California

 

Currently, analytical laboratories are certified by a process both assuring adherence to a set of operating standards and also assuring that someone in that laboratory is able to identify fungi and bacteria in culture accurately.  While these are important, the process does not guarantee that each analyst in a lab can recognize spores on spore trap, tape or bulk samples. 

 

Because microscopic analysis of samples is an increasingly important tool for the environmental investigator, it is time we set an industry standard for individual analysts Labs with well-trained mycologists have been performing onsite training, testing and quality control.  Unfortunately, the recent rapid expansion of the analytical laboratory field has left us with a dearth of qualified analysts, and many untrained or poorly trained people are analyzing spores.

 

In order to be a good spore analyst, an individual must meet all the following qualifications:

  1. have a good grounding in mycology..

  2. understand how samples are collected and the variable affecting the efficiency of sample collection.

  3. understand how spores are produced and the relationships between spore morphology and spore development.

  4. have a “memory” library that includes all common spore types that are likely to be found both indoors and out, and

  5. have a good knowledge of the literature by which unknown spores can be identified.

 

Additionally, the laboratory from which a good spore analyst works must have:

  1. high-quality microscopes and optics,

  2. a work atmosphere and culture that emphasize quality and accuracy over speed.

  3. an extensive mycological library to aid in identifying the less common spore types, and

  4. a quality-assurance program in place that is functional, adapted for biological analysis, and actually used during the normal course of work.

 

Finally, it is essential that individual analysts (not laboratories) be certified for spore identification and counting.  Given the complexity of sample analysis, it is not sufficient for a laboratory to have a single highly qualified mycologist directing a set of relatively untrained analysts.  There are too many kinds of spores, too many problems with interference by non-biological debris, and too many other problems requiring professional judgment on every sample.

 

While there are undoubtedly excellent analysts working in many labs, others may not have the necessary training.  Some have attempted to make the transition from asbestos to spore-trap analysis, the only common denominator between these tow methods is the use of a microscope.  Others have attempted to begin spore analysis with a minimum of training; one-day or one-week training courses do not equip a person to recognize fungal spores in fields of debris reliably, nor do they provide a sufficient breadth of experience to make accurate counting and identification possible.  Even people with mycological backgrounds must undergo an extensive training period to enable a shift to a focus on spore structures alone for identification.

 

The Pan American Aerobiology Association is a non-profit association dedicated to furthering the science of aerobiology.  It addressed the certification problem in 2003 by forming a separate nonprofit corporation, the Pan American Aerobiology Certification Board, which is run by an executive board with membership from several large analytical labs as well as recognized mycologists with experience in spore identification.  A separate scientific board monitors the quality of the certifying instruments. 

 

The certification process consists of two steps.  The first is written, unproctored mail exam that has elements of mycology, bioaerosols and air sampling.  It deals only with particle sample analysis, not culture-based analysis.  This exam assesses competence in mycology and aerobiology, and it serves in part as an educational tool, leading students to access the literature in order to discover the answers to unknown questions.  The Certification Board’s Web site, www.paacb.org, provides guidance documents to aid in this educational facet.  For those who pass this open-book written exam, a proctored practical spore identification exam will be given in selected regional testing centers.

 

Fees associated with the testing are used to cover legal costs, independent administrative management and professional testing.  PAACB is a non-profit corporation in every sense, and the board members serve on a volunteer basis.

 

This certification process is strictly voluntary and at this point, is not required by any firm or contractor.  Registration is open to anyone who believes themselves to be qualified.  It is hoped that those who complete the PAACB certification process will become widely recognized within the testing industry and among those letting contracts for testing as having achieved a standard level of competency. 

 

To become a volunteer in this process in any capacity or to apply for the certification exam, contact the independent management firm by e-mail at administrator@paacb.org.

 

Dr. Harriet Burge is director of aerobiology at Environmental Microbiology Laboratory Inc. and associate professor and director of the microbiology laboratory at the Harvard School of Public Health.  Widely considered the leading expert in IAQ, Burge pioneered the field more than 30 years ago.  She has served as a member of three National Academy of Sciences committees for IAQ, including as vice chair of the Committee on the Health Effects of Indoor Allergens.

 

To submit a question to Dr. Burge, write to her by e-mail at askdrburge@emlab.com.  All questions posed to Burge will receive a reply, although space limitations prevent us from publishing them all.  By submitting a question, you agree to have your question and its answer published in a future edition of IE Connections.  

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