By Samuel W. Anderson

This may be one of the most important GeneWatch issues in recent memory. In its early days, the Council for Responsible Genetics put a great deal of effort into laboratory safety questions as Harvard University prepared to set up a recombinant DNA lab.

Today, biolab safety is still an important issue for those who live near a current or planned high security laboratory, such as Boston University's plan to study highly pathogenic diseases in a Biosafety Level 4 lab nestled in the densely populated neighborhood of Roxbury. In this issue, we also focus on those directly in the line of fire: lab workers.

Becky McClain's case against Pfizer is central to this issue. While a researcher in a Pfizer lab, Becky became severely ill. All of the evidence suggests that a mishandled genetically engineered virus was the culprit, but Pfizer will not release the records that could prove this-and help Becky's doctors determine the best course of treatment.

Aside from Pfizer's mistreatment of their own worker after she became ill, Becky's case demonstrated how easily companies can get away with shockingly poor safety measures in labs. This was even more clear in the case of David Bell, who contracted a mysterious infection while working in a pesticide company lab where potentially hazardous experiments were conducted with only a bathroom fan for ventilation and where the researchers gathered each day for afternoon tea-not in a break room, but in the lab, among the researchers' malaria experiments and exotic soil cultures.

At Pfizer, the hallway doubled as lunch room. Workers ate while dangerous materials were carried past, and on several occasions Becky McClain says they discovered biological samples sitting where employees ate their lunches. Her complaints on the matter fell on deaf ears, as did David's at his lab (he was told biohazard signs would not look good for tours). Becky compares safety hazards in biolabs to "a roach in the kitchen"-when you see one, you can bet it's only the tip of the iceberg.

The same could be said of Becky McClain and David Bell themselves. These are not isolated incidents. Now that we have seen these two cases, one has to wonder: how many more are out there?

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Created in 1999 by the Council for Responsible Genetics, the Safe Seed Pledge helps to connect non-GM seed sellers,distributors and traders to the growing market of concerned gardeners and agricultural consumers. The Pledge allows businesses and individuals to declare that they "do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds," thus assuring consumers of their commitment.
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