Beltsville E. coli infection was not first

Two workers in another USDA lab in Pennsylvania had been infected with O157:H7 nineteen months earlier

By | June 30, 2005

Nineteen months before a laboratory-acquired infection almost killed a government microbiologist in Beltsville, Maryland in December 2003, workers in a sister government lab near Philadelphia fell ill with the same potentially fatal bacterial illness, The Scientist has learned.

Mechanical engineer Joseph Sites and mechanic Johnny Morphew, workers at the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety Intervention Technologies Research Unit in Wyndmoor, Pa., fell ill in May 2002 after Sites helped perform an experiment where they sprayed E. coli on the inside windows of a biocontainment chamber to see whether chlorine bleach sprayed later would kill it. Morphew was not present during the experiment, but later moved machinery located inside the chamber. What they thought was a harmless version of E. coli was instead contaminated with the potentially deadly O157:H7 strain. Both men missed several days of work, and Morphew reported losing 14 pounds. Both told The Scientist yesterday (June 29) that they are healthy now and not suffering any side effects.

Phyllis Johnson, director of the Beltsville Area Research Center which houses the Produce Quality and Safety Laboratory (PQSL) where the two later infections took place, told The Scientist yesterday (June 29) that although she never saw a Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) report on the Wyndmoor infections, she knew about the accident and "was aware of what was going on there and what needed to be done. Then we proceeded to take all the necessary precautions in PSL," she said. She declined to elaborate further.

In statements issued later, a Beltsville spokesperson said that "biosafety programs are already in place" at Beltsville and that "the [CDC] recommendations regarding [Wyndmoor] have been discussed with the leadership" at Beltsville and other centers "for consideration and incorporation into the laboratories'" safety programs.

Some microbiologists see parallels between these infections and the two that later occurred at the USDA's Produce Quality and Safety Laboratory in Beltsville. In December 2003, microbiologist Ru-ching Hsia fell into a 30-day coma and nearly died after another researcher's technician performed an experiment across a lab bench from her in which he put apple slices he had dunked in a O157:H7 broth into home salad spinners on the bench and manually spun out the excess pathogen. That experiment may have put aerosolized O157:H7 into the air, although that point is controversial. Yaguang Luo, the researcher who planned the experiment, became infected in April 2004 but recovered quickly.

"The parallel is the aerosols, the presumed aerosol in the second case and the known aerosol in the first case," said Abigail Salyers, a past president of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after looking at reports of both accidents written by the CDC. According to CDC rules, experiments with aerosolized pathogens should be conducted under a hood to keep the aerosols from escaping, but no hood was used in either accident.

Martha Howe, another ASM past president from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, said the accidents were similar in that "the safety in both facilities would be increased if those recommendations were followed" but were otherwise unconnected.

CDC's Beltsville accident report says that although general biosafety training was routinely provided at PQSL, "researchers did not receive training regarding the specific hazard of handling E. coli O157:H7" and other human foodborne pathogens.

"I think that application of the CDC recommendations [from the Wyndmoor report] would possibly have prevented the infection at Beltsville, but not necessarily," Howe said. However, Salyers said she doubted that the implementation would have helped, because "the basic rules were not being followed to start with." She added, "Then if a new set of recommendations came through, what's the likelihood they would have been followed?"

Salyers criticized the Wyndmoor CDC report for not addressing how the harmless E. coli became contaminated with the O157 strain, and questioned the value of earlier research there using the contaminated strain. John Cherry, director of the Wyndmoor research center, said yesterday that neither USDA nor CDC ever figured out how that happened. Nevertheless, he said he is sure that the contamination only affected the one experiment, because his scientists routinely test their strains.

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