Forensic laboratories put samples at risk

2016-10-06 08:07

Johannesburg - Broken equipment and bad management could be placing the country's drunk-driving blood alcohol samples, post-mortem and toxicology reports at risk.

This is according to whistleblowers in the Department of Health's forensic chemistry laboratories and a 2015/16 Auditor General's report into the Pretoria forensic laboratory which News24 has seen.

The labs are critical in drunk-driving cases as all blood tests from arrested motorists are sent there for testing. There are four laboratories in the country: Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.

The labs have been in the spotlight for a number of years, particularly because of the backlog in getting samples analysed and released, leading to long delays in finalising criminal cases. The last time the number of backlogs at the labs was published was in 2014. At the time, it was heading towards 60 000 samples nationally.

The Star newspaper reported that the Pretoria laboratory was completely dysfunctional. Staff members were forced to work amid leaking sewage, fire hazards and overcrowding.

Chief Director for violence, emergency medical services and forensic pathology services at the health department Pakiso Netshidzivhani said at the time that the building where the laboratory was situated was not ideal and they were procuring a new one.

Fridges, which should be between 0°C and 8°C to safeguard the integrity of samples, were recorded being as warm as 10°C in 2014. 

Two years later the lab is still in the same building and the situation appears to have worsened. 

According to the Auditor General's report, blood alcohol and toxicology samples at the Pretoria lab were kept in fridges where temperatures were not consistently recorded. 

According to the report, the correct storage of samples according to stipulated temperature protocols is essential to preserve the integrity of 13 410 blood alcohol and toxicology samples awaiting analysis.

A toxicology fridge recorded a temperature of 18.8°C, according to the report. Samples were still being kept in it. 

"On further inquiry it was discovered that the fridge has been out of order for a while, with no clear indication of how long and whether action has been taken to rectify the problem," the report said.

The report contained observations about the building the laboratory was situated in:

- Dust had resulted in frequent breakdowns of the thermo scientific machine used to test for heavy metals;
- The wooden floors in the blood alcohol section were not suitable for laboratory functioning, and spills could result in exposure to hazardous materials; 
- Fridges and cold rooms were filled to capacity;
- In the toxicology section 23 analysts shared the same space and certain sections got very crowded;
- There were recurring power outages due to the old electrical wiring in the building, which resulted in equipment damage. 

The risks of this included an inefficient workflow and a greater risk of hazards and injury to staff.

The report concluded that there was a "slow response by senior management in ensuring that samples are stored in conditions that are in line with the approved justice, crime prevention and security cluster's inter-departmental protocols". This could lead to samples being damaged, spoilt or rendered unsuitable for analysis.

Whistleblowers in the labs indicated there were more problems.

They told News24 that the Pretoria and Johannesburg laboratories had no accreditation. 

"We have witnessed a fridge temperature going as high as 40°C during the hot months," said one source. 

The group indicated that one of the main reasons for the delays in samples being analysed was that some of the equipment being ordered was not ideal for use in the labs. 

They said a Randox machine was ordered for the Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg labs even though these were designed to work on live patient's blood.

"The clotted and thick blood samples of the deceased coming from the mortuaries and pathologists, which are kept in non-functioning fridges for many years, before being analysed, block up the tubes of the machine and cause errors, and the machine stops functioning," a whistleblower explained.  

Another machine ordered was a Thermo Orbitrap ultra sensitive LS MS machine for the Pretoria and Cape Town labs. It was bought in 2015, but has never been used, said an insider. They believe these machines cost around R6m each.

A machine known as the TQD LC MS instrument, which was critical in sample analysis, often broke down. At one stage 30 analysts had to queue to use it, causing delays, the insiders said. 

The Thermo Orbitrap Ultra Sensitive LCMS machine. 

Health department spokesperson Joe Maila said legislation did not require these laboratories to be accredited.

The directorate of forensic pathology services was planning for accreditation in a phased approach, he said.

The Cape Town forensic chemistry laboratory (FCL) had been accredited for blood alcohol analysis first. The remaining FCL's had not yet been accredited, but were working towards accreditation.

Maila denied that samples were being stored in broken fridges. He said a maintenance tender for fridges had been advertised nationally. 

Maila said the Durban and Pretoria labs had no unprocessed blood alcohol samples older than 90 days, although the Johannesburg lab still had a blood alcohol backlog. 

"All three FCL's still have a toxicology backlog. Upon allocation of a case to an analyst, the case is normally finalised within 30 to 60 days," he said.
Maila said the Randox equipment was a screening technique and analysts did not issue results based on the Randox test results only. It only gave an indication of which compounds might be present in a sample.

He said the Orbitrap machine in Cape Town was in use and the Pretoria analysts had received basic training on the instrument. 

Read more on:    department of health  |  pretoria

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