The only national laboratory to test the effectiveness of hospital disinfectants has been closed down by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The loss has created a chorus of dissent from state officials, industry leaders and scientists, some of whom say they fear that hospital infections may result from bad batches of disinfectants and sterilants in the 47 states where no laboratories are testing them for efficacy.
James G. Touhey, director of benefits and field studies for the EPA, said that his office believes there is "not a high probability" that people will get infections as a result of closing the laboratory.
He said that the agency wants to use the 20 or so employes who had been working in the laboratory to reduce the backlog in other jobs, such as reviewing registration applications for new pesticides.
Touhey insisted that the decision is not intended to save money, since very little money will be saved.
He said that the decision was made to concentrate manpower on new applications from companies, and so scientists were taken from the EPA laboratory.
Touhey said that there is another check on disinfectants, which leads him to believe that there is little danger in closing the EPA lab. Disinfectants, like other products, are given occasional checks by the states to see if they contain the ingredients named on the label.
He said that if the product seems effective according to the company's tests when it is first registered, and later retains the ingredients named on its label, it should still be effective.
Scientists contend, however, that there is a possibility that the closing of the EPA laboratory may result in accidents of contamination or dilution of some batches.
Whenever the EPA laboratory had found bad batches of the germ-killing chemicals, the batches were ordered removed from the market. Now, no such check exists except in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.
Martha Rhodes, chief of the Florida laboratory that studies the effectiveness of hospital disinfectants and sterilants, said that of the samples they select to test regularly, 30 and 40 percent fail to kill germs and enforcement action must be taken.
Her laboratory is looking for the bad batches and probably finds a higher percentage of them than exists in the marketplace, she said.
Closing the laboratory "is a hell of a way to save money . . . sterilants and disinfectants are things we use in trying to save lives," said Frank B. Engley, professor of microbiology at the University of Missouri. "It looks in this case like we might end up saving money and wasting lives."
Another important effect of closing the laboratory is that it will change the process by which a company can register a new sterilant, the chemicals that had to be certified to kill all germs, so they could be used on medical instruments that enter the body during surgery.
The EPA laboratory routinely tested every new sterilant to make sure that it was completely effective.
Now, said one EPA official, sterilants no longer will receive independent testing by the government as a standard procedure. The company's tests will stand as the evidence in favor of the chemicals' effectiveness.
The laboratory being closed is part of an EPA facility in Beltsville.
The part of the laboratory involved in testing disinfectant chemicals has been closed down gradually over the past six months, although the equipment and germ cultures have been kept up so that they could be used again if needed.
Industry officials are concerned over the closing of the laboratory because the action puts the more reputable and conservative companies on the same footing as those willing to make extravagant claims for the effectiveness of their products, since neither is being checked.
In addition, the absence of the EPA laboratory raises the specter of "five, 20, or even 50 states obtaining varying test results on the same product and thereby taking different enforcement actions," said Ralph Engel, president of the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers' Association.