Cartel on trial – accredited lab allegedly falsified results

Embarrassment is looming for the inspection cartel.  Worse, the weakness of accreditation’s foundational philosophy has been revealed publicly.

UKAS celebrated HBI’s accreditation to ISO 17020 for Legionella risk assessments.  HBI’s quality management is also accredited to ISO 9002.  But the company has been accused of issuing faked results for six months.  Remember: inspection is “just a sampling exercise”; it could have missed this.

It’s not clear from their schedule of accreditation whether this extends to laboratory testing of samples or whether they subcontract testing elsewhere.  Private labs are held to a lower standard than public sector labs.  ISO standards normally require that subcontracting is made clear to customers, but UKAS has not published the laboratory methods HBI are using as it does in many other cases.  Customers that bothered to consult the UKAS schedule (how many know about it?) are left guessing how sampling and testing are done:

This suggests the allegation may regard changing the results from a subcontracted lab on the customer’s report forms.  It looks like HBI don’t perform laboratory testing themselves.

Here is the BBC’s account of what has been going on:

Newtownabbey’s Valley Leisure Centre water test results faked

By Martin Cassidy BBC NI consumer affairs correspondent

Valley swimming pool

The Valley Leisure Centre was given the fabricated results over a six-month period last year.

Legionnaires’ disease can be caused by breathing in water droplets contaminated with Legionella bacteria.

The centre employed east Belfast-based Healthy Buildings International Ireland Ltd, to carry out monthly checks.

The chief executive of Newtownabbey Borough Council Jacqui Dixon explained what happened.

“The council received an anonymous letter last week which made allegations about the testing of Legionella in our swimming pools. So we launched an immediate investigation into the matter,” she said.

“As a result of the company who were involved in the testing admitted that our results were falsified for a six-month period during 2011.”

The council has said the swimming pool does not pose a risk to the public, however the spa area remains closed while further tests are carried out.

Billy Webb, mayor of Newtownabbey, said: “I cannot believe any company would carry out such an action.”

The Health and Safety Executive is now investigating what happened.

In a statement, Healthy Buildings International said they were in the process of issuing legal proceedings against a former employee.

They said they were investigating what they described as an anonymous and defamatory letter and would issue a fuller statement once legal clearance had been given.

HBI’s statement reads:

Newtownabbey Borough Council – Healthy Buildings International – BBC Story

We should like to make you aware that Healthy Buildings International are currently in the process of issuing legal proceedings against a former employee. 

As you may be aware this story was sparked by an anonymous and defamatory letter and this too is the subject of legal investigation.

The company will be in a position to issue a fuller statement and explanation regarding the complex background to this incident, once legal clearance has been given.

If substantiated, this is very embarrassing for the inspection cartel since it shows clearly that accreditation is no security against either false results or corruption after all.

The BBC has reported that HBI has admitted issuing faked results.  The council has promptly taken its business elsewhere.  HBI’s solicitors are at work on the case.

UKAS had specifically celebrated HBI’s accreditation for Legionella since this would force competitors also to pay for accreditation.  Here it is from the UKAS website (in case it suddenly disappears):

UKAS awards First Accreditation for Legionella Risk Assessments

The United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) has granted the first ever accreditation for conducting Legionella Risk Assessments in the UK. Healthy Buildings International (HBI) is the first body to be accredited against internationally recognised standards to assess for the risk of legionellae in water systems.

Although legionellae organisms rarely pose a significant danger when they occur naturally, people are at risk and vulnerable when they develop in purpose-built water systems such as cooling towers, evaporative condensers, spa pools, and hot water systems used in a variety of premises (work and domestic).

HBI have successfully delivered indoor environmental consultancy services and workplace health and safety risk assessments since 1983 and together with UKAS have developed a framework for accreditation under both ISO/IEC 17020 (General criteria for the operation of various types of bodies performing inspection) and British Standard BS 8580:2010 (Water Quality – Risk assessments for Legionella control – Code of Practice).

The British Standard has been produced in order to underpin The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) approved code of practice and guidance document L8 (Legionnaires’ Disease: The control of Legionella bacteria in water systems).

UKAS accreditation provides assurance of the consistency and quality of the inspections performed by competent organisations and consequently gives the consumer greater confidence in the safety of their environment.

Dr J Lee, Consultant Clinical Scientist at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said “HBI is the first organisation to be accredited in the UK for carrying out risk assessments for Legionella control.  This is an important step. The imminent publication of BS 8580 should encourage more risk assessors to seek accreditation. This will assist clients in their selection of assessors and lead to greater consistency in Legionella risk assessments with consequent improvements in protection of the public health.”

Martin Reeve, UKAS Assessment Manager, said: “Where health and safety is concerned, accurate results are paramount. UKAS accreditation is a rigorous assessment, and accredited status not only guarantees the technical competence of an organisation, but also underpins confidence in their results. UKAS is delighted to be able to confer accredited status on HBI.”

HBI says much the same:

HBI (formerly ACVA Atlantic) has form in the corporate corruption of science by the tobacco industry.

Should we be surprised?  Corruption is commonplace in science, as elsewhere.  A paper by Daniele Fanelli tells us that,

A pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once –a serious form of misconduct by any standard– and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% (N = 12, 95% CI: 9.91–19.72) for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices.”  

Fanelli D, 2009.  How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738

Accreditation makes honest work much more difficult, but arguably has less impact on deception.  EC Directives and market manipulation coerce testing labs into being accredited, but accreditation has little place in research labs.  Historically, almost all scientific knowledge was discovered without accreditation.  There’s plenty of irony in this – accreditation supposedly gives confidence in measurements based on fundamental science that supposedly lacks equivalent validation.  

Perhaps this case is just a disgruntled employee’s unfounded allegations.  False allegations happen.  Yet the BBC reported that HBI has admitted issuing faked results.  Let’s wait and see the evidence.

These circumstances show that a magistrate who accepts accreditation at face value would fall victim to not examining the evidence for each particular sample.   Will the court be palmed off with a certificate of general lab management rather than investigating the validity of the samples in the case?  Accreditation is not a legitimate shortcut for the court to weigh evidence.   If the evidence must still be presented in each case, what value then is compulsory accreditation?  It will be interesting to see what standard of proof UKAS applies to any actions it might take.  

Will UKAS act swiftly to suspend HBI’s accreditation, or will it wait for evidence?

Why did the council act much more promptly than UKAS?

Should UKAS act on allegation, proof, admission, or not at all?

Who will hold UKAS to the standard that a hospital or council would be held to by the media?  The Health and Safety Executive?  The police?  A media investigation?

Even if the allegations are untrue, what assurance will accreditation itself now give?

Should UKAS suspend HBI’s accreditation to ISO 17020, ISO  9002, or both?

When should HBI’s fees stop being paid to UKAS if accreditation is lost?

So many questions!  But do they matter?  Like the council in this case, other customers will go quickly to where they have greater confidence.   At last, this is the market versus the cartel.  The events demonstrate that accreditation doesn’t have much to offer when things get tough.  It’s just a seductive theory that has yet to go out of fashion.

"Trust in me"?!

Keep checking the UKAS website for their response.  Events like this put the cartel’s philosophical underpinnings on trial.  Does their action or inaction really fill you with confidence or do you still have uncertainty?

Since labs are required to laboriously calculate the uncertainty of their measurements, why are cartel inspection bodies not required to state the uncertainty of accreditation itself?

This entry was posted in Cartel, Laboratory medicine, Medicine, NHS, Philosophy, Practical problems, Psychology, Questions, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Cartel on trial – accredited lab allegedly falsified results

  1. Pingback: Disgruntled rogue scientists, but accredited | ISOwatch

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