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U of Washington chided for lab conditions

The institution closes its health research facility and plans a $20 million renovation to maintain accreditation

By | February 16, 2007

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have evacuated approximately 100,000 research animals from its aging health science building after a lab accreditation group placed the institution on probation, with six months to renovate or risk losing accreditation. The university estimated it will have to spend at least $20 million to bring the facilities up-to-date. Infractions included overcrowded rooms and spaces filled with dust and strong odors, rooms cluttered with supplies being used for surgeries, and areas where the temperature commonly shifts daily by up to 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The health sciences building was filled with signs of wear and tear, including peeled paint and chipped floors, which can harbor pathogens. Officials from Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC), a voluntary accreditation organization, list these and other problems they noticed during their inspection in a ten-page document released by UW. AAALAC executive director John Miller told The Scientist that between 5 and 15 percent of the more than 700 programs accredited by AAALAC receive some kind of reprimand about the state of their research labs when they are evaluated every three years -- either a deferred accreditation, the more serious probation accreditation (such as UW), or an outright revocation of accreditation. The most significant -- and most expensive -- upgrade is to the heating and cooling system of the health sciences facility, built in 1947, said John Coulter, executive director of the Health Sciences Administration at UW. "That's the kind of issue that all of us with 60-year old facilities are dealing with," he told The Scientist. "We've been trying for years to maintain this facility." The current heating and cooling system has proven an especially costly problem for the university -- two years ago, a malfunction in a pneumatic tube caused the heat to come on in the laboratories, raising the temperature to 104 degrees F (40 degrees Celsius) and killing approximately 500 research mice. Miller noted that large facilities such as UW's often have a more difficult time keeping their facilities up-to-date, given the sheer number of laboratories operating at a feverish pace. UW owes AAALAC a report of their progress on May 1, after which the accreditation group's council will meet to discuss whether to restore UW's accreditation or extend the probation. "Given the scope of their problems, [an extension of their probation] is more likely," Miller said. He noted the university is "almost certainly not" going to lose its accreditation. UW's problem doesn't stem from a handful of particularly egregious oversights, Miller continued, but from a large number of minor problems, which "taken together" merited a probation. "The biggest thing was lots of small things." He explained that earning AAALAC accreditation is purely voluntary, meaning facilities are under no obligation to obtain accreditation. However, institutions work to get AAALAC's approval, something Coulter corroborated. "We're committed to accreditation," Coulter said. Coulter noted that the $20 million represents an "early look at what the renovations may cost, and the price may very well go up in the coming weeks. "This may be so expensive, that [$20 million] won't be enough." He said officials at UW have said "they want to help, they want this to work," but added their support may decrease if the costs dramatically increase. "If we can't get this facility fixed, we will have major problems in meeting our researchers' needs," he added. Coulter noted the university has done its best to maintain facilities with partial renovations using NIH facility improvement grants, but that money is harder to come by now that federal funding has reached a plateau. Miller conceded that there is less federal money available for building costs, but labs still need to be safe. "They just need to find the money somewhere else." For now, the evacuated research animals are in the university's new genome center, just completed and therefore relatively empty. This relocation has allowed UW researchers to continue their work as usual, Coulter noted. He agreed that the timing was fortuitous -- without the empty new facility that could welcome 100,000 evacuated research animals, "I don't know what we would have done." Alison McCook mail@the-scientist.com Links within this article H Cohen, "Assessing animal caretakers," The Scientist, May 23, 2005. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/21343 Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International http://www.aaalac.org C Shekhar, "Hundreds of OSU research animals die," The Scientist, July 19, 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23984/ MP Ogren, "An accident waiting to happen?" The Scientist, November 27, 2003. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/13499/
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