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

Little is Known Yet About Risks to Worker Safety, Public Health, Social Justice, and the Environment

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.

Photo by Tuur Van BalenBiotech workers not only risk to exposure to microbes that could cause them harm, they can also be
carrying infections out into the public.

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.

Seth Sandronsky is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Race and Class, Review of Radical Political Economics, Sacramento News & Review and Z Magazine, among other publications. He lives and writes in Sacramento, CA., and can be reached at ssandronsky@yahoo.com.

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