A Kensington laboratory that processes the AIDS virus is under investigation by Maryland authorities after two accidents there last month, including one in which an employe's face was cut by flying glass when a 20-liter container of the virus exploded.
The incidents occurred Oct. 23 and Oct. 30 at Bionetics Research Inc., at 5516 Nicholson La., which is owned by Organon Teknica, a Dutch firm. It is one of five firms licensed by the federal government to produce a testing medium used nationwide to check blood for exposure to the AIDS virus.
The first accident occurred when a hose popped off a container holding the live virus, spraying 1 to 2 liters of viral solution in a room that was not occupied, according to Dr. Mason Joseph, an official of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The second accident occurred about 90 minutes before two health inspectors arrived at the lab to investigate the Oct. 23 spill. "When they arrived, a room was sealed off and they learned about the second accident," Joseph said.
In that incident, a glass container holding the viral solution exploded, spraying about 10 liters of solution and injuring an employe, he said.
According to Bob Nemchin, manager of health and safety for the lab, "There was no release of the material from the facility into the environment because of the protective containment systems . . . . Following the accidents, the operations in that room were immediately shut down and the room was sealed off" and decontaminated, he said.
Employes at the lab wear protective laboratory suits and hoods, and it is not clear how an employe wearing protective head gear was cut.
The blood of the four employes who work in that section of the lab has been monitored routinely in the 15 years the firm has dealt with viruses in the AIDS family, Nemchin said. Because AIDS can be transmitted through the blood, the employe who was cut will have his blood checked monthly, he said.
Nemchin said the accidents apparently were caused by overpressurization of equipment. "Because of that, we've revised the process to eliminate pressurization," he said. Production continues on a second system that uses pumps to draw the solution across a centrifuge, which breaks down the virus. It is then shipped frozen to Charleston, S.C., to be processed into blood-testing kits. Nemchin said the pressure system will not be used until an outside consultant has inspected it.
A second laboratory company, Metpath Biomedical, shares the facility which houses Bionetics lab. Seena Polivy, a manager at Metpath, which tests a variety of medical specimens, said of the spills: "They were totally contained and we do not share air. We were at absolutely no danger."
But a former employe of Metpath, Ed Odenkirchen of Silver Spring, said he plans to have his blood tested to make sure he had not been exposed to the virus when he walked down common hallways. Although there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through the air, Odenkirchen said he is worried about "the aerosol effects, the microdroplets. I can't find any studies on that."
Raymond Lloyd, assistant commissioner of the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health division, said his agency will conduct an investigation when it receives the health department's report. "We don't have labs on our regular inspection list," he noted. "Labs in general aren't high hazards in terms of lost time, which is how we determine who to inspect."
Bill Cole, director of production at Bionetics, said output tripled in the last 1 1/2 years to meet national demand by researchers and testing centers for the AIDS virus.