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    Post: 8.12~Biotech Canaries~Sickened Workers Get Little Relief

    Posted by Sharon on 8/12/10
    Biotech canaries
    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
    protecting them.

    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,”
    he explained.

    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,, 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,”
    McClain said.

    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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