Pathologists working at the Forensic Science Centre in St James are doing one of the deadliest jobs, yet they are functioning without medical health insurance coverage.The three pathologists and an X-ray technician perform anatomical dissections on bodies infected with tuberculosis, HIV, carcinogens and other life-threatening diseases. Because they are contract workers, they are not entitled to a medical plan or health benefits.
In an interview, forensic pathologist Dr Valery Alexandrov said they were exposed to dangerous decomposition gases from the corpses as well as toxic chemicals such as acetone, formaline and carcinogens which cause lung, dental and ocular (eye) problems.
"Our contract does not include specifics of our work. The X-ray technician is exposed to radiation, and we are working with dangerous substances like gunpowder residue and formaline (a substance used to preserve tissue from decomposing), which is ten per cent carcinogenic (cancer causing)," Alexandrov said. He explained that a special microstation was needed, and all chemicals should be used with special precautions.
Alexandrov, who has worked in different parts of the world including Italy, United States and Canada, said T&T was the only place in the world where no medical coverage was provided for pathologists.
Forensic centre not meeting world health standards
He explained that the Forensic Science Centre was operating below World Health Organization (WHO) standards. WHO guidelines stipulate that a pathologist was supposed to do between 250 to 350 autopsies per year, but the team has already done close to 1,000 autopsies for 2013.
Last year, Alexandrov said he did 480 autopsies. Some of these were non-criminal cases which could easily have been done by a general pathologist. As the death toll increases, Alexandrov said their workload has become overwhelming and the risks have become greater."This country is infamous for having a lot of TB, HIV. Last year, I did six cases on bodies which turned out to be infected with TB," Alexandrov said.
He explained, "In the hospital if someone is found to have TB, a doctor can say he is not doing the autopsy and issue a death certificate based on information. If somebody is brought here and they are shot five times, and I open the body and find TB, I cannot say I won't do the autopsy, because it is an investigation. I cannot refuse," Alexandrov said.
He said it takes more than 20 scalpels to open up a body. On one occasion, Alexandrov said he had to use money from his own pockets to purchase scalpels (a small and extremely sharp bladed instrument used for surgery and anatomical dissection).Saying medical insurance should be mandatory for the job, Alexandrov said he has been lobbying on behalf of the other contract workers to improve their working conditions.
Set up a bones depository
Meanwhile, Alexandrov said the centre was cramped and should be outfitted with a bones depository. He said it was common for skeletal remains to be brought in, but there was no proper depository to store the bones. There are nine boxes of bones in the centre and between 15 to 20 unidentified bodies."We are receiving a lot of skeletal remains which must be identified by DNA. It takes time, so the bones should be cleaned and put in separate boxes. This is why we need a bones depository," Alexandrov explained.
He also said there should be at least three autopsy stations. Currently, there are two stations but one is not in use. When the Sunday Guardian visited the centre, the two autopsy stations were unkempt. Ceiling tiles were stained and loose. The area emanated a stench which circulated throughout the building because of a central ventilation system. The floor was covered with water.
Alexandrov said to reduce the number of autopsies per year, the Government should separate forensic pathology from limited pathology and hire a general pathologist to examine non-criminal cases. This would bring the number of pathologists to four.
Operating like a kindergarten
"I still don't understand why we are being transferred from the Ministry of National Security to the Ministry of Justice. We are working along with police so our direct communication is integral to police work," Alexandrov said. He also called on the Government to open the centre 24/7.
"Right now we operate like kindergarten: from 8 am to 4 pm. If someone dies on a weekend, the body has to be sent to the hospital mortuary or a funeral home and then brought here on a Monday. The body can be tampered with and valuable evidence is lost during that time. The families face additional trauma because they have to wait almost the entire day for the body to be transported here," Alexandrov said.
He called for a removal service to be established which will bring bodies immediately to the centre. He also said pathologists should visit crime scenes; but because of their overwhelming workload, this rarely happens."We are operating like blind kittens because we have to depend on police photographs to examine a crime scene. Everything here is upside down," Alexandrov said. He also added that District Medical Officers were not trained in forensics yet the practice was to call a DMO to declare death.
$3.7m approved to upgrade Forensic Centre
In May shortly before she left office, former justice minister Christlyn Moore announced that Cabinet had approved $3.7 million to refurbish the centre. She said one of the two autopsy stations was shut down based on recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Authority.Moore also said Cabinet had approved the hiring of one additional evidence technician, two forensic biologists and two scientific examiners. The refurbishment works are scheduled to be completed by March next year.
In an e-mail last week, Minister of National Security Gary Griffith said there were ongoing meetings to discuss the establishment of forensic laboratories.Griffith said he has been communicating with a UK forensic science company, which has a Caribbean base, known as CARIFOR, established specifically to bring the best of UK forensic science to assist law enforcement and criminal justice in the Caribbean.
"They are known for setting up and establishing full-scale laboratories and for personally leading scientific teams with help to solve many of the UK's most high-profile criminal cases," Griffith said. He said improving T&T's forensic weaponry would assist in the crime fight.