No more methamphetamine, cocaine contamination found in Washington state toxicology lab

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Recent sampling at Washington’s only forensic toxicology lab found more areas contaminated with methamphetamine and cocaine, sparking even more skepticism among defense attorneys about the integrity of blood tests performed in a lab used in thousands of criminal cases and death investigations statewide.

The latest Washington State Patrol Toxicology Laboratory sampling found residual levels of cocaine at five sites and methamphetamine at four lab sites – mostly ceiling vents and air intake systems, according to a report released this month. ci on the lab website. Samples from three additional sites were also tested presumably positive for other drugs.

Lab officials, who maintain blood tests are not compromised by the lab’s background contamination, say the contaminated sites detected by the sampling were cleaned up last month. The lab will continue to periodically take samples to check for contamination in its work areas and coordinate workplace safety and air handling assessments by a federal occupational health agency, said Captain Neil. Weaver, spokesperson for the State Patrol, in an email.

The lab is also receiving advice from a state forensics advisory committee to ensure all required legal disclosures about contamination issues are made to defendants, Weaver said.

But a lawyer who spearheaded the Washington Defense Bar’s calls for an outside investigation into the lab said the latest sampling only underscored the state’s need to take responsibility for and solve a problem. which could call into question all the blood tests in the laboratory.

“The fact that there is still contamination despite public messages from the state is very alarming,” said Bruce Adsero, public defender for Lynnwood, whose law firm Feldman & Lee has called for more transparency. from the State on the ongoing contamination problems of the laboratory since last year.

False positives

The latest sampling results come after the toxicology lab, located on the third floor of an office building in South Seattle, falsely detected methamphetamine in blood samples tested for 11 cases since 2019. The issues are appeared after the lab expanded its operations. in March 2018, in a hallway and adjoining work area where scientists from the State Patrol Criminal Lab once set up makeshift methamphetamine labs for training purposes.

Officials at the toxicology lab, after discovering a wave of false positive methamphetamine results in mid-2019, ditched the adjoining space and hired a contractor, BioClean, to clean up the widespread contamination detected there. But more than a year later, laboratory officials still had not informed prosecutors – who are forced to disclose potentially exculpatory information to defendants – of the contamination.

Prosecution groups began disclosing details of the issue to the Washington legal defense community in August 2020. By that time, the toxicology lab had resumed operations in its main lab, where all blood tests are being performed. now carried out.

But contamination concerns persisted, with false methamphetamine results appearing in two of 11 cases this year.

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The latest sampling came after the lab in April revealed its second case this year with a false positive for methamphetamine in the main toxicology lab. Laboratory officials again retained BioClean to collect samples, 100 of which were sent to the National Institute of Standards & Technology, which has tested them as part of an ongoing study into background drug contamination in health care facilities. country’s forensic laboratories.

The results revealed detectable levels of methamphetamine and cocaine in samples taken from ceiling vents and from the air intake of a lab table in the main lab. Cocaine was also found separately in a sample taken from the air intake of a laboratory sink.

Three additional samples obtained presumed positive results for other drugs, including the diuretics Mannitol and Sorbitol, detected on a laboratory refrigerator, as well as the nicotine and the psychotropic drug Mitragynine, commonly known as Kratom, found on a laboratory workbench. and on a tiled floor outside the entrance to an office.

Existing testing protocols remain in effect and additional cleaning steps have been adopted for scientists using workspaces, Weaver said.

“There was no new divergence [blood testing] identified results; the root cause of the contamination is still being determined, ”added Weaver.

Administrators assume that the contamination in the annex lab somehow got to the main lab, possibly through the air handling system, lab officials said.

More samples from the Washington Toxicology Lab will be sent to NIST for its study, and the lab plans an on-site assessment of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in November – the earlier than the federal agency safety officers can visit, Weaver said.

But while lab officials appear to be taking the necessary safety precautions at work, they have done little to recognize or process evidence of potentially tainted blood that could impact thousands of cases, defense attorneys say.

Adsero said he did not believe the Federal Occupational Safety Agency “will assess the conclusive impact of the impact of methamphetamine contamination on laboratory work.”

“The lab’s refusal to take corrective action is problematic,” added Magda Baker of the Washington Defender Association, a group that assists public defenders statewide. “This indicates to me that they requested the NIST study (perhaps to signify a concern about contamination) with no intention of taking corrective action regardless of the results of the study.”

Thousands of cases

Adsero, Baker and other defense attorneys also criticized the state’s previous disclosures about the contamination as misleading, vague and too slow, noting that the contamination could have impacted thousands of cases, some of which in which defendants have already been convicted.

Since March 2018, when the toxicology lab moved into the contaminated annex, the lab had tested nearly 51,000 cases from Washington and 700 cases combined from Alaska and Oregon up to mid- June of this year.

The lab has retroactively examined thousands of cases in which blood tests have detected methamphetamine – including more than 1,400 cases treated by the lab between July 2020 and the end of January disclosed on Friday – finding no discrepancy in the results.

But internal toxicology lab contamination documents and expert testimony have helped at least three defendants with methamphetamine detected in their blood, all of whom deny using the drug, to beat drunk driving charges. . A judge in a Pierce County case in March ruled that toxicology lab testing in a contaminated area was “gross government mismanagement.”

Janine Arvizu, a nationally recognized chemist and certified lab quality checker, testified in the Pierce County case that blood tubes opened in the methamphetamine-tainted drug addiction lab are susceptible to airborne contamination. If that happens, scientists would not be able to detect discrepancies in the results later through confirmatory testing, she said.

Among the State Patrol’s legal disclosures this month was a request by a King County public defender to reject or exclude blood tests in an ongoing DUI case in Seattle.

The leaked petition, sent to the Washington Defender Association on August 10 by a group of state prosecutors, highlighted defense claims that Dr. Brianna Peterson, the former acting director of the drug addiction lab, had presented false testimony in the Pierce County case and in a generic statement still used by prosecutors about the lab contamination.

A letter accompanying the leaked motion from the State Patrol’s Office of Professional Standards – the office that oversees internal investigations of WSP employees – said additional information “will be provided as it becomes available.”

A spokesperson for the WSP said he was unable to comment at press time on the disclosure involving Peterson, who left the lab for another job in June and has since declined to comment on his past statements.


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