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Clear Rules for Medical Samples

“Kids,” Burbank Police Lt. Don Brown said, “are going to be kids.” Indeed they will, turning almost anything--from a crooked stick to a vial of blood--into a toy. It’s up to adults to ensure that so-called attractive nuisances don’t put children at risk. In the days after four children broke into laboratory boxes outside a Burbank clinic and played with vials of blood and other medical specimens, police, parents and public officials rightly questioned how the boys had such easy access to potentially hazardous materials.

Surprisingly, there are no specific rules regulating how medical samples are stored as they await pickup by a lab. There should be. Lakeside Medical Associates left four boxes filled with at least 50 samples--including blood, urine, pap smears and biopsies--in a parking lot for couriers from SmithKline Beecham Clinical Laboratories. Usually, a Lakeside official said, the clinic locks the boxes and anchors them to the back door.

But on Feb. 16, the boxes were not locked and four boys got into them, broke vials on the ground, dumped contents from one container to another and spilled some of the specimens onto their hands. They were being checked last week for HIV, Hepatitis B and other illnesses, although some doctors said the risk of infection was small. One parent said her son was unaware of the risk, that the vials might as well have contained “magic potion.” To be sure, the children were trespassing. They were someplace they did not belong doing something they should not have been doing. Although the youngest is just 7, the oldest of the boys is 13--old enough to know that the samples were not playthings.

That does not erase the fact that clear rules are needed to govern how medical samples are protected. SmithKline Beecham provides locked boxes for its customers, but clinics are under no obligation to use them. Samples should be locked up so that only couriers from authorized labs can obtain ready access. Locks are easy to install and keys are easy to make. Simple steps can protect samples from malicious vandals and protect kids from the temptation to play with things that definitely are not toys.

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