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Accidents on rise as more US labs handle lethal germs

More than 100 reported since '03

WASHINGTON - American laboratories handling deadly germs and toxins have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, and the number is increasing as more labs do the work.

No one died, and regulators said the public was never at risk during these episodes. But the documented cases reflect poorly on procedures and oversight at high-security labs, some of which work with organisms and poisons that can cause illnesses with no cure. In some cases, labs have failed to report accidents as required by law.

The mishaps include workers bitten or scratched by infected animals, skin cuts, needle sticks, and more, according to a review by the Associated Press of confidential reports submitted to federal regulators. They describe accidents involving anthrax, bird flu virus, monkeypox, and plague-causing bacteria at 44 labs in 24 states. More than two dozen events were still under investigation.

The number of accidents has risen steadily. Through August, the most recent period covered in the reports obtained by the Associated Press, labs reported 36 accidents and lost shipments during 2007 - nearly double the number reported during all of 2004.

Likewise, the number of labs approved by the government to handle the deadliest substances has nearly doubled to 409 since 2004, and there are now 15 of the highest-security labs. Labs are routinely inspected by federal regulators once every three years, but accidents trigger interim inspections.

In 2004, three scientists working in a Boston University laboratory were contaminated with the bacterium that causes tularemia while studying the germ. All three recovered, although one was hospitalized for several days. BU said that the researchers, who were working in a Biosafety Level-2 lab, violated safety procedures intended to protect them from exposure, and the accident led city health authorities to impose new oversight on all labs in Boston.

The accidents happened as BU sought governmental approvals to build a high-security lab where scientists could study the world's deadliest germs, including Ebola, anthrax, and plague. That controversial project, known as a Biosafety Level-4 lab, is under construction on BU's South End campus and expected to open in about a year.

In a new report by congressional investigators, the Government Accountability Office said little is known about labs that are not federally funded or don't work with any of 72 dangerous substances the government monitors most closely.

"No single federal agency . . . has the mission to track the overall number of these labs in the United States," said the GAO's report, expected to be released later this week. "Consequently, no agency is responsible for determining the risks associated with the proliferation of these labs."

The House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee plans hearings on the issue tomorrow. "It may be only a matter of time before our nation has a public health incident with potentially catastrophic results," said Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, the panel's chairman.

Lab accidents have affected other countries. Britain's health and safety agency concluded there was a "strong probability" a leaking pipe at a British lab manufacturing vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease was the source of an outbreak of the illness in livestock earlier this year. Britain was forced to suspend exports of livestock, meat, and milk products and destroy livestock. The disease does not infect humans.

While medical experts consider it unlikely that a lab employee will become sick and infect others, these labs have strict rules to prevent anyone from stealing organisms or toxins and using them for bioterrorism.

The reports were so sensitive the Bush administration refused to release them under the Freedom of Information Act, citing an antibioterrorism law aimed at preventing terrorists from locating stockpiles of poisons and learning who handles them.

Stephen Smith of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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