Cross-contamination at Rhode Island drug lab calls 52 cocaine cases into question

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Cross-contamination at Rhode Island drug lab calls 52 cocaine cases into question

Misty Severi

March 17, 06:53 PM March 17, 06:53 PM

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An accidental cross-contamination event has placed a scientist and around 52 cases related to cocaine under intense scrutiny. The scientist failed to identify a substance in a blind test correctly, Rhode Island state officials said Friday.

The Rhode Island Department of Health said it conducted a routine quality-assurance test at its Forensic Drug Chemistry Lab. Scientists blindly test different types of drug samples in the quality assurance test to ensure they are producing accurate results. During the test, one scientist claimed there was cocaine in a case the department knew was clean.


Although the incident was the result of one test, the department said all of the employee’s cases were being looked at. There are 52 of the employee’s cases that had a small enough amount of cocaine that it could have been an accidental cross-contamination.

“Although this issue arose during analysis of a quality assurance test case, not in relation to an actual criminal case, the [Health Department] is notifying the the Rhode Island General’s Office of this issue,” State Health Lab Director Glen Gallagher said in a letter to the attorney general’s Narcotics and Violent Crime Unit on Friday.

The unnamed scientist has been removed from testing cocaine cases until the person can be retrained. The employee does not have any previous mistakes on their record.

The scientist worked on approximately 1,313 law enforcement cases between June 2021 and November 2022, according to Gallagher, but health officials said 549 of the cases did not involve cocaine. Another 436 cases involved high volumes of cocaine, making cross-contamination unlikely. But a batch of 236 samples is still being reviewed because they could have cocaine cross-contamination.

“If evidence on these cases remains and can be retrieved from law enforcement agencies for re-testing, re-testing will be done immediately,” Gallagher said.

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No determination on how the mistake happened has been made, but experts hypothesized that the error could have been caused by the sensitivity of their equipment or the fact the drug can be transmitted through the air.

A spokesman for the state’s attorney general said the department has checked with ongoing cocaine cases, but no person currently incarcerated or being held is solely facing cocaine-related charges. He also claimed the lab is expediting the retesting of the 52 cases, according to WPRI-12.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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