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Biotech Worker’s Illness Raises Worries About the Growing, Largely Unregulated, Industry

Biotech Worker’s Illness Raises Worries About the Growing, Largely Unregulated, Industry

 

Written by Seth Sandronsky

David Bell was a senior at University California at Davis when he began to work at Agraquest, a start-up biotech firm. In the five months and nine days between when he was hired, in August 1998, and June 1999, when he was laid off after he fell sick, he worked primarily on two bio-pesticide projects: Laginex and Serenade.

Laginex is the brand name of Lagenidium giganteum, a water mold, which infects and kills mosquitoes. In a series of experiments, Bell documented what happened in water when mosquito larvae encountered Laginex, and how to lengthen the bio-pesticide’s shelf life. Serenade is a bio-pesticide used to control insects on crops. Its active ingredient is the Bacillus subtilis bacteria, which AgraQuest first found in a Fresno peach orchard. Bell tested soil samples taken from locations worldwide, using a fermentation process to extract the bacteria.

Bell and a co-worker filled 10-kilo bags of Serenade from a larger drum. Bell did not wear a respirator while loading the Serenade. “I thought that I had the safest job in the world,” he says.

But while he was employed at Agraquest, Bell developed histoplasmosis, a lung disease that sometimes affects spelunkers who come into contact with bat guano.

He has had four sinus surgeries since to try to address the illness. Now his immune system is a wreck and needs intravenous immunoglobulin (IV IG) transfusions every month to bolster it.

Bell and his mother, Sandi Trend, allege that Bell’s former workplace may have exposed him to bacteria and fungi that led to his initial illness.

The mother-son duo spoke out against the hazards of the bio-tech industry at a conference titled “Unmasking the Bay Area Bio-Lab and Synthetic Biology: Health, Justice and Communities at Risk” in Berkeley, CA, recently.  The two blame “an unknown microorganism” (that showed up in a urine test) for his illness. Bell believes he may have been infected by it at Aqraquest’s labs since the company was experimenting with several known species of bacteria and fungi and were also discovering new strains and species of these microbes at the same time.

Bell’s case, the conference organizers say, reveals the potential risks posed by the growing, but largely unregulated, synthetic biology industry. (Incidentally, Aqraquest, like many biotech companies in the Bay Area, partners with several pharma and agro -industry giants, including Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, and BASF.)

“With the planned expansion of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) to Richmond, and with the rapid growth of private biotech labs in the area, the East Bay has become global ground zero for the controversial emerging science of synthetic biology,” the event organizers said in a statement. “The risks that this rapidly growing field poses to worker safety, public health, social justice, and the environment are poorly understood, and effectively unregulated.”

Biotech workers not only risk to exposure to microbes that could cause them harm, they can also be carrying infections out into the public and putting a larger body of people at risk.

Trend, who runs a website called bio-tech awareness, alleges that Agraquest did, and still is, covering-up it role in her son’s illnesses and suggests that corruption and the breakdown within the California workers compensation system have frustrated Bell’s attempts at redress.

When Bell first began experiencing symptoms in 1999, he was prescribed antibiotics and painkillers, to no avail. He says Agraquest did not provide him with a claim form for potential benefits under the state Workers’ Compensation system, as required by the California Labor Code.

According to Trend, the surgeon who performed Bell’s second sinus surgery in 2002 failed to culture his tissue. Was this simply an oversight? The answer is unclear. However, Trend says, the same hospital where Bell was operated on had on its board of trustees the CEO and founder of Agraquest.

A second potential conflict of interest, Trend says, is Bell’s experience with filing a claim for a California workers’ compensation settlement in 2003. Agraquest provided him with the wrong name of its insurer, which denied his claim. Bell eventually filed a claim with company’s actual insurer, Liberty Mutual, but again his claim was rejected. The then took his case to court. But Workers’ Compensation Administrative Law Judge Suzanne F. Dugan denied his claim because it had been filed “over four years after his termination of employment.” Bell appealed the ruling, but lost. Judge Dugan, incidentally, once worked at the law firm that represents Liberty Mutual.

Bell and his mother are still struggling for justice and to pay medical bills. Bell’s annual income from Social Security Disability Insurance is $12,000. “It’s kind of freaky to live on limited income and get medical bills of $12,000 to $17,000 for once-a-month IV IG transfusions,” he says.

This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.

 

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Photo from Sergei Golychev via flickr

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44 comments

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9:54AM PDT on Sep 20, 2012

It seems that regulations are needed for these industries. I hope this man gets the healthcare he needs, and hopefully a cure.

10:52AM PDT on Apr 21, 2012

Thanks

12:07AM PDT on Apr 21, 2012

wow... no safety precautions provided nor means to follow
and a SiCKO! health system to make treatment so prohibitively expensive it risks worsening health

ah... that's USA (opportunity knocks for all vested vultures involved)

11:27PM PDT on Apr 20, 2012

Ugh, ridiculous and upsetting.

1:10PM PDT on Apr 20, 2012

He should be compensated & the court system should be ashamed for mishandling his case!

10:00PM PDT on Apr 19, 2012

Why on earth are they not required to wear protective gear?

2:45PM PDT on Apr 19, 2012

Business as usual...

2:24PM PDT on Apr 19, 2012

I had a friend who packaged birth control pills, she and her co-workers were getting erratic periods. Just walk into a pharmacy or the section of the garden nursery where the chemicals are...if you can sniff it, it's already floating in the air, going up your nose and into your lungs.

12:04PM PDT on Apr 19, 2012

On a slightly different note, I was grossed out to read that embryonic stem cells are now being tested for use in foods. Companies in the food industry have used human embryonic cells in their R&D efforts, including for artificial flavorings. One such company, Senomyx, a flavor research firm, stands accused of using proteins derived from human embryonic kidney cells to develop sweeteners and other flavorings. One of their patents mentions HEK 293, short for Human Embryonic Kidney 293. Their research is used by large food companies including PepsiCo, (per a recent internet news source (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/01/20/145539661/state-bill-outlaws-use-of-fetuses-in-food-industry-meets-visceral-reaction?ft=1&f=1003).

11:39AM PDT on Apr 19, 2012

WHAT? When working with any pesticide, whatever it is made of, you wear protective clothes and a respirator. That not only includes carbon based insecticides and herbicides, but substances based on bacteria and fungi.
Whether you are researching, packaging or spraying these substances, you never, never take them for granted.
Didn't this young man have a supervison and a faculty advisor? This is crazy. That company should be held responsible for not only not protecting this young man but for apparently not supervising him as well.

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