Blood, phlegm and tears
David Bell claims he was sickened while working at a Davis biotech firm, but no one’s listening
Former Sacramento resident David Bell was healthy when AgraQuest, a Davis firm that manufactures biological pesticides, hired him as a researcher and technician in August 1998. Five months later, he came down with severe flu symptoms. His face and teeth grew numb. Breathing became difficult and he developed severe headaches. His nose bled and his sputum turned bloody.
Ten years, four sinus surgeries and numerous medical treatments later, Bell remains incapacitated by the illness, which he and his mother, Sandi Trend, of Citrus Heights, claim was caused by bacteria and fungi he was exposed to at AgraQuest. Yet thanks to record-keeping errors and the amount of time that passed before Bell realized what might be causing his illness, he has not been compensated for the wages he lost, nor the six-figure medical expenses he’s incurred since becoming sick.
But Bell and Trend are not giving up their quest. They’ve gone to the workers’ compensation board. They’ve contacted elected representatives. Now, they’ve enlisted famed consumer advocate and Peace and Freedom Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader in their cause. For Bell, it’s as much about restoring his lost dignity as his health.
“I went looking for an honest job with AgraQuest,” said Bell, a Chico High School graduate. He was laid off in June 1999, but quickly found new employment with a biotech firm in Fairfield. It didn’t last. “I had to resign, due to uncontrollable throwing up traveling to and from work on [Interstate] 80,” he said. A husband and father of two youngsters, he could no longer serve as the family’s breadwinner. “That took away my pride.”
AgraQuest was founded in 1995 by Pam Marrone, a respected entomologist who had specialized in agriculture and insects at biotech giant Monsanto. Bell was a semester away from earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Sacramento State when he started at the company in 1998. According to the transcript from his first workers’ compensation hearing, Bell worked primarily on two biopesticide projects, Laginex and Serenade.
Laginex is the brand name of Lagenidium giganteum, a water mold (fungi), which infects and kills mosquitoes. In a series of experiments, Bell documented what happened in water with mosquito larvae and Laginex and how to lengthen the biopesticide’s shelf life.
Serenade is a biopesticide used to control insects on crops. Its active ingredients are 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. He 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 wore only my own lab coat and company-provided safety glasses,” he said. “I was told that everything at work was safe.”
Marrone left AgraQuest in March 2006 to found Marrone Organic Innovations in Davis. She declined to comment for this story. But as recently as October 2002, Marrone wrote that Serenade is “safe to workers and ground water,” in the industry journal Pesticide Outlook. At the workers’ compensation hearing, Denise Manker, AgraQuest’s vice president of global product development, testified that the company and its employees followed proper safety procedures and had tested its strain of Bacillus subtilis to ensure it did not contain a substance that causes allergic reactions. While noting that soil samples in the laboratory can be hazardous if handled incorrectly, she said it was highly unlikely that Bell had become infected by the Bacillus subtilis, since it’s not known to be harmful to humans.
But as Bell discovered during a 2004 visit to the Mayo Clinic in Arizona for his third sinus surgery, that may not be the case. According to peer-reviewed articles in British medical journal The Lancet, and other sources, serious questions have been raised about the safety of Bacillus subtilis for humans and animals.
Tests conducted at the clinic determined Bell had histo yeast, a mold found in soil, in his blood serum. He had developed histoplasmosis, which according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention affects the lungs and other organs and can be fatal if not treated.
“It dawned on me that I’d been screwed,” Bell said. “At AgraQuest I became the experiment. That’s not right.”
Working his case backward through time has presented distinct disadvantages.
When he realized why he was sick in 2003, Bell immediately called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigated AgraQuest and found that one of its ventilator hoods didn’t meet state standards. The hood was repaired, but the minor violation had no bearing on his case. Bell also learned that the Sutter Health doctor who performed his first sinus surgery in 1999 had failed to collect cultures of his bodily fluids, making it difficult to prove he was infected at AgraQuest.
But by far the most formidable obstacle Bell faced was the statute of limitations on workers’ compensation cases. When he first began experiencing symptoms in 1999, Bell 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.
By the time he filed in October 2003, it was too late. Last year, workers’ compensation administrative law Judge Suzanne F. Dugan denied his claim because it had been filed “over four years after his termination of employment.” That, according to the judge, made Bell’s injury claim moot.
Bell appealed the ruling, but lost.
It’s been a debilitating, frustrating ordeal for Bell and his mother, who’s served as her son’s chief researcher throughout. Since Dugan denied Bell’s claim, they’ve desperately attempted to gain the attention of various elected representatives from the state, with little success. They contacted Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. No reply. Trend spoke with Rep. Dan Lungren at a town hall meeting last November. Neither he nor his staff showed much interest. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, chairwoman of the workforce protections committee, told Trend to wait until next year.
This August, the case came to the attention of Ralph Nader, who was in Sacramento for the Peace and Freedom Party’s state convention. Before receiving the party’s nomination, Nader heard Trend present Bell’s story at a candidate forum. Nader, long an advocate for regulating industry in the public interest of consumers and workers, said that he would contact Waxman. Nader plans also to speak about the need for better government oversight of the biopesticide industry in Davis days before the November 4 election.
Meanwhile, Bell continues to fight the debilitating illness. Because his infected lungs can no longer tolerate Sacramento Valley air pollution, he and his family moved to Texas, where the environment is more suitable. Still, headaches, night sweats, vomiting and diarrhea remain a part of Bell’s daily routine. Then there’s the sputum.
“I’ve literally seen pus from my nose in nearly all colors of the rainbow,” Bell said. “I have 1- and 2-foot strands of hyperplastic mucus, which look like huge fish eggs, but are actually polyps of infections.”
To unclog his sinus cavities, he regularly uses a nasal irrigator with 3 liters of saline rinse. As anybody who has swallowed salt water knows, it causes dizziness, a regular occurrence for Bell. It hasn’t been easy on the family.
“My kids are doing fine now, but it’s been bad when I left home for surgeries,” Bell said. “I recall our daughter Sheri asking my wife Melissa, ‘What was Daddy like before he got sick?’”