Workers' ailments close police gun-testing lab

November 25, 1993|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Staff Writer

The Baltimore Police Department has closed its ballistics testing lab and an adjoining fingerprint analysis area after at least four technicians began complaining two weeks ago of headaches, dizziness, burning eyes and chest pains.

Thomas Muller, director of the department's crime lab on the fifth floor of police headquarters at 601 E. Fayette St., refused to comment Wednesday on the condition of the workers, who have been on medical leave since the lab was closed.

The department ordered the analysts to undergo blood studies at Mercy Hospital to determine if they had ingested or inhaled lead, nitrates, barium or any of the other compounds released in the dozens of test firings in the lab every day.

Bullets from as many as 30 guns suspected to have been used in crimes are fired into an 850-gallon cone-shaped tank of water in the lab, then retrieved and compared with bullets that have been recovered from crime scenes and victims to determine if they match.

Fumes and fall-out from the gunshots are drawn into the ventilation system or collect on surfaces in the lab, where they can be easily picked up on workers' clothing or skin and inadvertently inhaled or consumed.

Similar problems led the department to close gun ranges that were once housed in district stations. Technicians in the crime lab have complained in recent years that periodic blood screenings to detect levels of dangerous compounds are not conducted frequently enough to warn them of problems.

Craig Lowry, chief of compliance for the Maryland Occupational, Safety and Health office, said his investigators began a probe into the lab when one worker called to complain that he had been sickened on the job "by a substance or substances in the environment."

"The allegation was that the employee was suddenly overcome by something," Mr. Lowry said. "We have no idea what may have caused his illness at this point. But the department, apparently of its own volition, has closed the lab."

Mr. Lowry said the study should be completed within two weeks.

Agent Doug Price, a police spokesman, said last night that the hospital tests had failed to uncover any toxins in the workers' blood and that firings would resume in the lab while the investigation continues into the cause of their illnesses.

The department was able to avoid a backlog in ballistics tests, Mr. Price said, by temporarily shifting its operations to the police academy gun range in Baltimore County.

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