By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Ellen Avilla was a good soldier in the war on disease. For almost five years, while working as a technician in the Arizona Department of Health's state laboratory, Avilla performed tests on thousands of blood samples--checking them for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), hepatitis, measles and other infectious and deadly illnesses. According to a series of personnel evaluations compiled by her supervisors, she did her job well, earning high marks for her skill and willingness to follow orders.
But when state lab officials told Avilla last year that she would be required to dump vials of blood and other liquids used in AIDS and hepatitis tests down the drain of a lab wash basin, she balked. This was one order, she says, that not even the most loyal lieutenant could obey in good conscience.
"I couldn't believe that they wanted to dispose of infectious material like that by washing it down the sink," Avilla says. "That kind of waste shouldn't be put into the public sewer system, especially when it is virtually untreated.
"When I tried to tell them it was wrong, I was given a choice: Drop that stuff down the sink or leave. I chose to leave."
In a $2.5 million lawsuit Avilla and her attorney husband, Steve, plan to file next week in federal district court in Phoenix, Ellen alleges that the health department violated whistle-blower laws and her civil rights by attempting to harass her into keeping quiet about the questionable disposal method and other safety concerns.
Surprisingly, while health department officials have denied that any of its employees harassed Ellen, they reluctantly admit, in internal agency papers that will be filed as part of the lawsuit, to pouring test samples down the sink--a practice they insist is both legal and safe.
More disturbing, despite numerous federal and industry rules that require thorough sterilization of potentially deadly bacteria before they can be washed down a public drain, the state regulators charged with monitoring the lab agree. Regulators gave the health department the official okay last December to continue the drain dumping.
"It is difficult to believe that officials of the State of Arizona have sanctioned the release of potentially deadly diseases into the sewer and water supply, but they have," Steve Avilla says. "The only way to stop them now is in court."
The Avillas' battle with the health department began in 1991, when a lab supervisor, William Slanta, allegedly refused to allow Ellen, then 42, time off work to learn testing procedures that were necessary to qualify her for promotions. She filed a complaint with the department, accusing Slanta of unfairly lowering one of her performance evaluations and of discriminating against her on the basis of age. She also charged that she had seen Slanta filling out lab paperwork while wearing gloves that he had used to perform a hepatitis test.
"My wife was in her 40s," Steve says, "and [Slanta] seemed to have a problem with older lab techs advancing within the department. So he didn't give her the training time that younger technicians were getting.
"Plus, she felt he was jeopardizing safety, because that paperwork could be handled by secretaries and a lot of other people who might be exposed if the disease got on it. Hepatitis can live on paper for six to eight days."
The department, after reviewing Ellen's grievance, allowed her to enroll in a training course and ordered that the performance evaluation be raised.
But the victory did little to improve working conditions for Ellen. Bad blood remained between Slanta and the lab tech, and she was soon transferred out of the testing area and into a department called "Scientific Services," a euphemism, Steve says, for "bottle washing."
Although Ellen--a soft-spoken woman who holds science degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Arizona State University--was reduced to lifting large, heavy boxes filled with dirty specimen bottles into a wash basin, she says she was happy to perform this mundane task rather than work for Slanta.
"I just wanted to get away from that man," she says. "Working with him was dangerous and uncomfortable."
But her slight build (five foot three and under 120 pounds) soon disqualified Ellen for the strenuous grunt work. After three months and several minor injuries sustained while hoisting bulky boxes, she was transferred back to testing duties in June 1992.
She says she soon discovered that the lab had changed dramatically in her absence. During her first four years on the job, it had been standard operating procedure to run blood and fluids used in AIDS and hepatitis testing through an autoclave--a device that kills bacteria by heating them--after testing was completed. Only then would the testing mixture, totally cleansed of dangerous disease, be safely poured down the drain.
But new procedures, implemented by Slanta, required only that a small amount of household bleach be splashed into the testing beakers before they were poured down a sink in the lab. There was no mixing or stirring of the bleach into the beakers, Ellen says--a step vital to sterilize the remains of AIDS tests, which are thick and gelatinous. When bleach was poured into an infected beaker, the bleach simply floated in a thin layer on top, never coming into direct contact with the bulk of the bacteria.