Forensic Chemistry Lab a big bloody mess
Johannesburg - The National Department of Health’s Forensic Chemistry Laboratory in Pretoria is completely dysfunctional.
Staff are forced to work amid leaking sewage, fire hazards and overcrowding, while the backlog of tens of thousands of blood alcohol samples continues to grow.
This is the claim of a whistle-blower at the laboratory who told The Star that rows of high-pressure gas cylinders stand unchained and unsecured – right next to chemical stores housing hundreds of litres of “very flammable and explosive chemicals”.
This is in direct breach of health and safety laws, and poses a fire risk to the two churches and the children’s daycare centre next to it.
The department has three forensic chemistry laboratories: in Pretoria, Joburg and Cape Town.
They are at the front line of the war against drunk-driving, where all blood tests from arrested motorists are sent for testing. All three have been mired in controversy over their inability to do the tests, as the backlog across the country heads towards 60 000 since the beginning of the year alone.
The Star has been given photographs purporting to show:
* Fridge temperatures set at 10ºC, when they should be at zero to safeguard the integrity of the samples;
* Boxes of blood samples stacked to the ceiling in the cold room and overflowing out into corridors, onto shelves and stuffed under benches;
* Analytical balances (very sensitive scales) not being regularly calibrated. The balance in the blood alcohol lab was last calibrated in October 2008; and
* Expired chemicals being used in the tests.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health denied all these allegations.
Department spokesman Joe Maila said a team of officials were dispatched to the laboratory and found no sewage leaks. There was a blockage last week in the women’s toilets but this had been fixed, he said.
Empty gas cylinders were in designated areas awaiting collection and posed no danger of fire, nor was there a shortage of test tubes or any expired chemicals being used.
“Yes, we acknowledge that there is a backlog, but to suggest that samples are kept in this manner is an exaggeration. Sample boxes are kept in fridges. However, in the process of keeping and loading them into fridges, some may be found in the corridors, but that is not its permanent storage,” Maila said.
He added that fridges were kept at 0ºC and that there were enough computers for all the staff.
“We acknowledge that the backlog is serious in our labs. However, all FCL (forensic chemistry labs) are functional. We need to build capacity to deal with the backlog and indeed to ensure that it does not accumulate even in the future,” he said.
The whistle-blower disputed this.
“For years there have been shortages of the most basic consumables that they purchase in only small amounts at a time. For instance, staff go for months on end without glass test tubes, vials, caps, filters, extraction cartridges and standards which are needed to do basic analysis of pathology samples which are years in arrears, and the backlog has increased.”
He said there were blood alcohol samples that had been awaiting analysis since 2006.
The DA’s Dianne Kohler Barnard said at the beginning of the year that Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi had admitted in a parliamentary reply there were 52 748 post-mortem, toxicology and drunk-driving samples awaiting processing.
She said the laboratories had been problematic for a long time, and delays had a severe impact on the criminal justice system and on crime victims.
“The failure to provide timely analysis of blood samples results in delays in the investigation and prosecution of crimes,” she said.