Biotech canaries

Sickened workers get little relief

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 her.

“I lost my career and I lost my health,” McClain told SN&R, adding that it took years to discover what caused her illness.

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.”