Post: 8.12~Biotech Canaries~Sickened Workers Get Little Relief
Posted by Sharon on 8/12/10
Sickened workers get little relief
By Seth Sandronsky
This article was published on 08.12.10.
David Bell is sick. He developed a lung condition called
histoplasmosis and other respiratory maladies while working
at Davis biotech firm AgraQuest 12 years ago. He blames his
poor health on his exposure to bacteria, fungi and insects
he handled while working for the firm in 1998.
But a workers’ compensation judge disagreed, leaving Bell
with staggering medical bills. “It’s kind of freaky to live
on limited income and get medical bills of $12,000 to
$17,000,” Bell explained.
He’s just one of many injured biotech workers around the
country who believe workplace-safety laws are not
In the past dozen years, Bell has endured four sinus
surgeries and submits to monthly hookups for intravenous
transfusions of immunoglobulin to help strengthen his
weakened immune system.
He and his family moved to Austin, Texas, in 2005. SN&R
recently spoke with Bell by phone. “I was too ill to go
with my wife and daughter on their vacation to Sacramento,”
Three years ago, workers’ compensation Judge Suzanne F.
Dugan threw out Bell’s claim, saying it had not been filed
in a timely fashion. She further denied that the AgraQuest
workplace caused Bell’s injuries. Bell tried to appeal the
ruling and lost.
Bell’s mother, Sandi Trend of Citrus Heights, has since
become a tireless investigator of the biotech industry.
On her website, www.biotechawareness.com, Trend has
documented nearly two dozen micro-organisms that her son
worked with at AgraQuest—which were also found in his body—
and the diseases that they can cause. She will present
evidence she and Bell believe show bias and conflicts of
interest in his case before the state Commission on
Judicial Performance on August 25.
In late May, The New York Times reported that “the
estimated 232,000 employees in the nation’s most
sophisticated biotechnology labs work amid imponderable
hazards.” The Times told the stories of government and
private-sector scientists exposed to bacteria who later
suffered comas, lost limbs and even death.
One of the scientists profiled, Becky McClain, a molecular
biologist, who worked for Pfizer from 1995 to 2005, became
ill with a condition that causes occasional temporary
paralysis. After taking a medical leave and failing to
return to work by Pfizer’s deadline, the drug giant fired
“I lost my career and I lost my health,” McClain told SN&R,
adding that it took years to discover what caused her
In April, a federal jury awarded McClain $1.37 million,
saying Pfizer violated whistle-blower laws by firing
McClain after she made claims of unsafe working conditions.
But the judge in McClain’s case ruled that there was a lack
of sufficient evidence to prove that her exposure to
genetically engineered viruses made her sick. And the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Pfizer
didn’t have to turn over exposure records that might have
proved McClain’s claim because they are trade secrets.
McClain and Trend recently spoke at a biotech-safety
conference in San Francisco.
“I’m hoping that with my case, a national discussion begins
on public health and safety and workers’ rights about the
dangers and exposures that can occur in biotech labs,”
Bell was one of those biotech workers 12 years ago.
Today, “I don’t have the money for an attorney,” he
said. “I’m in a lot of trouble.”
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