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Lab’s Growth Feeds on Word-of-Mouth (Chicago Tribune)

Lab’s Growth Feeds on Word-of-Mouth
Chicago Tribune
June 22, 2006
Written by Jon Van
Appeared in the Business section of the Chicago Tribune Nov. 12, 2005

McCrone Associates in Westmont is widely regarded as the nation’s best independent lab. “The facts I get from McCrone are gospel,” a client says. “I’ve never been challenged in court.”

From corroded hip implants to anonymous powders, the puzzles posed to McCrone Associates, Inc. in suburban Westmont are seldom routine. Widely regarded as the nation’s best independent laboratory, McCrone possesses the most extensive array of microscopes and chemical analysis equipment assembled by a private enterprise. Customers come because of McCrone’s reputation for getting answers to difficult questions and getting them quickly, said McCrone Chief Executive Donald Brooks.

“We get most of our business through word-of-mouth,” he said. “We go to a few trade shows and publish scientific papers, but we’ve never seen the need for a sales staff.”

The lab’s sleuths will tackle just about any problem that lends itself to chemical or microscopic analysis.

Founded in 1956 by Walter C. McCrone, the operation continues to grow. By the end of this year McCrone will have about 1,500 clients, Brooks said. That’s up from about 500 clients 10 years ago.

Before his death at age 86 in 2002, Walter McCrone led several high-profile investigations, including the determination that the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus, was actually a painting. He also determined that the Vinland Map, reputed to be a rendering of the New World as discovered by Leif Ericson in the 11th Century, was a fake.

The work at the lab is varied. Brooks recalls an incident several years ago when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration needed a fast answer regarding technical problems in space suites astronauts were scheduled to wear during a space walk.

“They contacted us on a Friday night and we got on it,” he said. “We found that liquid nitrogen coolant reacted with a rubber tube in a backpack to cause the failure. We gave them the answer, and they changed from rubber to Teflon in time to meet their scheduled launch time the following Monday.”

The lab also works on high-profile cases.

One client is Carl Duncan, who made a reputation investigating the MGM Grand hotel fire in Las Vegas that killed 84 people in 1980. More recently, Duncan sent McCrone materials from the 2003 fire in a Rhode Island nightclub that killed 99.

“The facts I get from McCrone are gospel,” said Duncan. “I’ve never been challenged in court, never overturned, never had to reassess.”

For about a quarter-century, Dr. Robert Urban, an orthopedic surgeon at Rush University in Chicago, has used McCrone for artificial hip research. One vexing question: What happens to the particles that spew into a patients body when hip implants loosen, wear and corrode?

Using advanced equipment and deep experience in particle isolation techniques, Anna Teetsov, who has worked at McCrone for 44 years, developed a way to isolate particles found in tissue from the livers, spleens and other organs of hip implant patients.”

“It’s a unique problem, isolating a very low concentration of particles in organs remote from the hip prosthesis,” said Urban. “What we found is the body handles the particles very well. These particles were mixed in with sand, soot and dust a person probably inhaled. “There were no ill effects on health.” Such problems are challenging, said Teetsov, who often calls upon intuition to solve them. “We bring a different perspective to any problem,” she said. “The microscopic perspective.”

Many problems brought to McCrone involved hotly disputed issues where serious money is at stake.

One dispute centered upon streaks and smears across windows installed in a high-rise building. The building owner blamed faulty thermal coatings on the windows, but the window people said that improper solvents were used to clean them, causing the damage. A lawsuit was filed.

Analysis using an ion gun to “drill” into the coating confirmed that the windows were fine until an improperly applied cleaning liquid caused a chemical reaction, said Kent Rhodes, manager of instrumental analysis at McCrone. “Usually you can tell from the patterns of the streaks that it was caused by a cleaning solution,” Rhodes said, “but you need the analysis to find chemical traces to prove your case in court.”

While analytic services are the core of McCrone’s business, it has other activities. The company sells microscopic equipment, operates a free online technical journal, provides an online particle atlas and offers courses in microscopy. McCrone doesn’t make microscopes, but its scientists provide expertise in preparing product packages designed to help customers achieve their goals, said Charles Zona, who heads equipment sales and the microscopy college. One such package is a mobile lab designed to help first responders, he said.

Expanding McCrone’s education function has grown in part from the equipment business, he said. “We found we were selling equipment to people with no training in how to use it. We now offer a white powder analysis course for first responders, including firefighters.”

The online particle atlas, which is available for subscriptions of $12 a month, provides images and other information intended to help people in the field identify the particle they’re examining.

Since the anthrax scares of four years ago, white powder analysis has become a sought-after skill, even though most of the materials analyzed turn out to be harmless. And they are not always white. Scott Stoeffler, a senior research scientist at McCrone, was called to examine powdered material that had been mailed to a client’s chief executive. “They wanted to know just what this greenish powder was,” Stoeffler said. “I put it under the microscope to look, and first I saw leaf fragments, then particles of sugar, salt and two kinds of dried peas.”

“It was powdered pea soup.”