To the editor:
When it comes to public health and public safety, cuts to funding can have dire consequences as the fallout at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) illustrates. Long before the current administration took office, concerns from employees in the lab to DPH leaders referencing a lack of staffing and funding were well known.
There is no excuse for a “rogue chemist” and I am not offering such here. However, this is only a symptom of a system that has clearly broken down under enormous monetary constraints and increased testing volume.
When the reputations of 12 highly educated scientists with more than 200 years combined experience are being called into question for one “rogue chemist,” the public at large is the victim, duped into thinking there can be a quick-fix solution. There is not.
Internal DPH documents, as reported recently, show a tenuous situation dating back close to seven years. Everything from an evidence office “at complete capacity” with “drug cases on [the] floor and piled on top of each other” to a staggering escalation in workloads, including the alarming increase of backlog items in part due to the 2009 Melendez-Diaz Supreme Court ruling requiring chemists who conduct the test be on hand to testify in cases resulting in trial, are clearly outlined. From January 2012 to April 2012 alone, most recent lab reports show the backlog has jumped from 9,322 to 12,991 samples, an almost 30-percent increase in just four months with no additional resources.
One person did not cause this situation; departmental budget choices are ultimately the root of the crisis. Not just during these past few years of economic stress, but even as far back as 2006, decisions were made affecting the operational needs of the drug laboratory.
Budgets will always need balancing, but better decisions with the focus on public health and safety must be considered first. Without that, errors may occur, corners get cut and people end up hurt. The end result is drug dealers go free, roads and bridges become unsafe, water is contaminated, air quality is compromised, homes are built on hazardous waste sites, dams can break putting whole communities at risk ... the list is endless.
It is imperative that all parties step up to the plate to work toward a long-term, viable solution that has the public’s health and safety, as well as the integrity of the commonwealth’s judicial system, set as the first priority.
We, the 3,400 state scientists and engineers dedicated to working each day to keep the commonwealth’s citizens, their air, water and food supplies, the energy they depend on, the environment that they live and recreate in and the infrastructure that they travel on safe, stand ready to work with all leaders to achieve this goal.
Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists