After a month of testing, Rocky Mountain Laboratory confirmed on May 28 that one of its microbiologists contracted salmonella, a form of food poisoning, while working with the bacteria at the facility in late April.
The employee was hospitalized for a short time to receive intravenous fluids to combat dehydration.
“We’ve never claimed that something can’t happen here,” said RML Associate Director Marshall Bloom. “What we do is determine if there is a risk to the community. When we are confident of what happened, we let people know. You’re dealing with an entity where if something goes wrong, they’re going to tell you.”
While Rocky Mountain Laboratories could have conducted its own tests to confirm that the employee contracted the same strain of salmonella that was being researched, administrators decided to send the samples to the State Public Health Lab for independent testing.
“A lot of people are critical of RML,” said Bloom, who felt that if indeed the tests revealed that the scientist had contracted salmonella outside of the lab, the results would have less credibility coming from RML.
Critics of the lab were pleased that RML informed the community (via press release) about the incident, and reiterated that they would like to see emergency protocols in place for such accidents if the lab goes to biosafety level 4 status, as expected.
“This was similar to the accident with the malfunction of the heating system,” said Alexandra Gorman with Women’s Voices for the Earth. “It’s another example that things do go wrong in these labs. We really have to be on our toes if BL-4 happens.”
The scientist who became ill had been working with bacteria for over a decade, according to Bloom.
“This is rare, but more common than lab-acquired HIV,” said Bloom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention receives reports of 40,000 cases of salmonella each year in the U.S., but estimates that 1.4 million people actually contract it annually.