UH bio lab closed since June 17 for repairs as a new, bigger lab is proposed

UH bio lab closed since June 17 for repairs as a new, bigger lab is proposed
Published: Jul. 25, 2012 at 9:40 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 24, 2013 at 4:14 PM HST
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University of Hawaii's lab in Kakaako
University of Hawaii's lab in Kakaako
Tom Apple
Tom Apple
Dr. Jerris Hedges
Dr. Jerris Hedges

Honolulu (HawaiiNewsNow) – Just as the University of Hawaii is proposing a new bio-safety lab in Kalaeloa, it's having problems with its existing lab at the John A. Burns School of Medicine in Kakaako, Hawaii News Now has learned.

UH officials never mentioned the Kakaako lab was closed for repairs at a contentious public informational meeting about the new proposed lab earlier this month.

The UH closed its bio-safety lab at the medical school in Kakaako for "planned maintenance" when the lab's certification expired on June 17 to install new sprinklers and make other improvements. It's a level three lab, capable of dealing with diseases like dengue fever and tuberculosis.

On July 5, the UH spent about $11,000 to have its lab tested by consultant World BioHazTec after the sprinkler and other work was completed.  The consultant found the lab failed several federal requirements.

Among them: the air ventilation system wasn't keeping air from escaping from the lab and some doors and other fixtures weren't sealed properly.

But UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple said there were other problems after the construction as well.

"The folks we had do some of the repairs used the wrong type of caulk.  And it's a sticky caulk.  And the problem with the sticky caulk is that bugs can stick to it.  And so we have to re-do that," Apple said.

The lab has remained closed for repairs on the new problems, work that could take another month to finish.

"These are areas that we've recognized and have been working diligently for several weeks now, to update," said Dr. Jerris Hedges, dean of the John A. Burns School of Medicine.

In the meantime, Hedges said lab experiments have been put on hold.

"Obviously, we have a list of projects we'd like to get going again, and so as soon as we can get the facility up and going, we will initiate additional projects," Hedges said.

The UH wants to build a new, larger $47.5 million bio-safety lab on a parking lot in Kalaeloa. The UH held an informational briefing on the project in Kapolei July 11. But no one told the people at the meeting about the Kakaako problems, one week after the Kakaako lab had failed its own inspection.

"People at the university knew that their lab was in serious trouble in terms of re-certification.  And yet they continually re-assured the community that there was no concern in terms of their health and safety," said State Rep. Mark Takai, who represents Pearl City, Waimalu and Waiau. "The immediate concern is for the health and safety of not only the workers but for the surrounding community."

A reporter asked Apple if it was a mistake not to tell the public at the meeting about the Kakaako lab's problems that were being fixed.

"We probably should have emphasized to the public exactly how incredibly careful we are," Apple said.

Apple said the lab's recent troubles show why UH needs a second lab, so there's always one available if the other is down for maintenance.

"The threat of an infectious disease here right now is really scary.  The loss of life, perhaps, by the fact that we don't have enough bsl (bio-safety lab) capability," Apple said.

But not as scary as Apple claims, since the State Health Department has a level-three bio-safety laboratory that handles diagnosis of infectious diseases, according to a state health spokeswoman.  UH's lab handles research and experiments.

The three-year old lab at Kakaako has never had a safety incident, UH officials said. They claim the safety of the public and lab employees was never at risk during the last few months because the lab was closed down in preparation for all of the repair work.

Last year, the lab was closed for routine maintenance for 67 days, from April 14 to June 19, a medical school spokeswoman said.  Medical school officials hope the lab will be closed for less than 50 days this year during maintenance.

The annual costs of routine maintenance plus recertification averages about $160,000, the spokeswoman said.

Copyright 2012 Hawaii News Now.  All rights reserved.