Council for Responsible Genetics – GENEWATCH – The 12 year ordeal of David Bell & Sandi Trend – AgraQuest

By Sam Anderson

The cautionary tale of David Bell begins when he was a college student in 1998, a biology major and aspiring biotech researcher at California State University,  Sacramento. In his final year of college, he was hired to work for AgraQuest, a venture biotechnology company in Davis. His stay at the company would not be long, but its impact would be long-lasting. Over a decade later, he and his mother, Sandi Trend, are still looking for justice.

David had worked at AgraQuest just over five months when he fell ill. Earlier that week he had been asked to clean a barrel used for a previous fermentation experiment, containing a gallon of leftover materials. Although he was assured at the time that the barrel would be safe to work with, the researcher who helped him wore a HEPA mask. The barrel’s contents were dumped into a storm drain next to the building and David cleaned it with household bleach.

Early the next week David had to leave work with serious sinus problems, and shortly afterward was admitted to an emergency care clinic. He would later discover that the rest of the office became ill too, and that within the week AgraQuest sent its employees home and locked its doors. David would not discover this until later-much later, because he was unable to return to work for five weeks. But David’s sinus problems lingered, his immune system was seriously weakened, and he continued to show some rather graphic symptoms involving, as David bluntly puts it, “the crap coming out of my face.” After four sinus surgeries, David’s health is still in question-and AgraQuest has yet to accept any responsibility. In court, its lawyers openly questioned whether David had even received those surgeries, and if he had, whether they were really necessary. It would seem David has earned the right to be blunt.

From where Sandi and David sit, the deck was stacked against them from the start. When David first visited the hospital with mysterious symptoms, he asked the doctor to run a culture in order to discover what might be infecting him; later, the doctor said she had forgotten to run the culture. It happens that AgraQuest founder Pam Marrone sat on the board of that hospital, and that David’s doctor would have known Marrone from sitting on the same community women’s council.

When they eventually went to court in an attempt to get workers’ compensation, the judge assigned to David’s case had previously worked for a firm that represented Liberty Mutual – the defendant. David’s own attorney had trained under the opposing lawyer, and she asked David to dismiss her. David says that his eventual lawyer, John Overton, was so dismayed by what he called a “kangaroo court” that he considered leaving the legal profession.

All of this may very well have been coincidence. The more compelling-and more serious-accusations of misconduct are reserved for David’s employer, AgraQuest.

AgraQuest was founded in 1995 by Pam Marrone, a former Monsanto pesticide researcher. Marrone aimed to discover and commercialize biopesticides as alternatives to chemical pesticides. The company’s approach, in the words of Marrone: “We move very fast. We focus on getting things to the market quickly.” AgraQuest still exists today-sans Marrone-and appears to have shifted much of its focus toward agrichemicals. The company’s website touts a corporate culture which encourages employees to “maintain an environmentally conscious work environment.” It may be true today, but in 1998, when David Bell began work at AgraQuest as a college senior, this was not exactly the case.

Marrone set up shop in an office suite in a residential neighborhood of Davis, California. Whether the businesses renting the adjacent offices knew at the time that their neighbor had converted Suite 4 into a lab is unclear, but David says that at one point other offices did complain about the smell from a project he had been assigned. David was assigned to conduct experiments using an evaporator set up in a room with only an open window for ventilation. After neighbors complained about the smell, the device was moved into a bathroom, which featured an upgraded ventilation system: the bathroom fan. Neither David nor anyone else, save one coworker, wore protective masks.

If these do not sound like descriptions of a high security biolab, that’s because this wasn’t one. The Center for Disease Control “recommends” a Biosafety Level 3 setup for the type of work AgraQuest was doing, but does not require it. David supposes the office suite was “technically” a Level 2 lab; however, CDC guidelines on Level 2 labs call for the use of biological safety cabinets to contain potential airborne contaminants, and a bathroom with a fan hardly qualifies.

Much of the work happening in the AgraQuest lab involved a sort of biological treasure hunt. Researchers brought in soil samples from around the world, then combed through them, searching for natural pesticides. David recalls AgraQuest coworkers pulling bags of soil out of a briefcase, boasting about getting the samples through airport security.

The hunt for exotic pest-killing organisms went on amid safety precautions David compares to those of a high school chemistry lab. The company did not provide its workers with a safety manual, although it created a short manual in time for David’s workers compensation trial. In addition to the lax use of protective masks and the potentially hazardous experiments conducted without the benefit of a safety hood, employees were allowed to wear their lab clothes home without cleaning them first. The waste disposal system was no better, as AgraQuest workers often dumped leftover materials into a storm drain outside the building. After David ‘s illness, Sandi went to 1105 Kennedy Place and took pictures of the drain. She found, ominously, a dead crow crumpled beneath a faucet covered with chemical deposits. Even more ominously, when she returned two weeks later with mold expert Doug Haney, the bird was still there-and showed no signs of decomposition. Haney was surprised: “After two weeks I would have expected to see almost bones and a little bit of feather.”

Many of AgraQuest’s slipshod safety controls might have been corrected had there been any federal regulatory oversight; but David and Sandi say the CDC failed to investigate David’s claims, and OSHA waited months before making a visit to the company, citing them only for a few faulty hoods. In fact, the one agency which followed up David and Sandi’s reports was the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which did not take the matter of soil smuggling lightly.

In the absence of inspections, the culture in AgraQuest’s Davis lab was nonchalant about safety. Almost any place within the office suite was inbounds for lab work, from the bathroom to the break room. Employees ate and experimented in the same space, washing dishes and lab equipment in the same sinks. David was particularly surprised to discover a workplace tradition at the lab: each afternoon the researchers would gather, there in the workspace amongst tropical soil cultures and anti-malaria experiments, and have teatime.

Sandi and David filed complaints with over a dozen agencies, from the Yolo County Health Department to the Attorney General of California to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. First they reported the lab conditions and the company’s treatment of David; then they reported the lack of investigation into these issues. To this day David has not received compensation for his illness; AgraQuest has not admitted fault in David’s condition and has not been formally reprimanded; and Sandi and David still do not know exactly what made David sick.

“God only knows what he was exposed to,” Sandi says. “Doctors don’t even know what to look for.”

David’s research career is long over and his immune system has yet to recover, but he has started looking for jobs in a new field. Yet all this time, even after all legal avenues for compensation seem to have closed, Sandi has lost none of her drive to expose what happened to David and warn other workers of what they are up against. “We can sit around and get mad all we want,” she says, “but somebody’s got to change this.”

David remembers a professor telling his class not to be concerned about the safety hazards of lab work. “My old professor assured me: ‘Don’t worry. Your scientist brethren are going to take care of you, because it could be them instead of you.’

That’s not what happened in my case. Not at all.”

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About Sharon Kramer

Hi, I'm an advocate for integrity in health marketing and in the courts.
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