Whistleblower claims local pediatric dental office did not properly sanitize equipment, water lines

Posted at 11:31 PM, Jan 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-17 09:21:05-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Catching up on the day, Ann Latham-Anderson and her son Daniel look over his new school pictures.

"Those are so cool, I like them, you look handsome," Latham-Anderson said using sign language. The pair communicate using sign language because Daniel is deaf.

He also has a complicated dental case.

So, even though they live deep in Goochland, mom opted to stick with Daniel's dentist after she moved to a new pediatric practice in Richmond: Dr. Richard Byrd and Associates.

"I know she has a really high standard of care, so I didn't even give it any thought," Latham-Anderson said.

Ann Latham-Anderson and her son Daniel

But, after a few visits there, she said her son's dentist confided in her that the practice was not properly cleaning the hand pieces used to remove cavities and polish filings.

"As she said was told to her they were simply wiping them down rather than sterilizing them between patients," Latham-Anderson said. "I was mortified."

Daniel's dentist agreed to speak with CBS 6 under the condition we not identify her.

"I don't know what else to do, but parents need to know,” she said.

She said she learned about the sterilization issue in late August when a staff member told her that the practice only had one working high speed hand piece, and that it was only being wiped off with an intermediate level disinfectant between patients.

"You are supposed to, after it has been used on a patient, you are to take it to a separate sterilization area. It should be cleaned and lubricated with a special fluid. It should be packaged and placed into a heat sterilizer or an autoclave," she said.

"So, bacteria or pathogens could have remained on the equipment?" CBS 6 investigative reporter Melissa Hipolit asked.

"Absolutely. Blood. Saliva. Bacteria and viruses. Viruses are more likely to remain there," she replied.

The dentist also said she learned the lines that supply the water used to clean patients' teeth were not being properly treated to CDC guidelines, which recommend all dental units use systems that treat water to meet drinking water standards.

"And if you're not properly taking care of the water that is being used, what could develop in the water?" Hipolit asked.

"It creates a biofilm and its heterotrophic bacteria that can live and multiply in those lines, things like E. coli, endotoxins, which are a very serious concern, MRSA has been found inside these lines," she replied.

Another dentist at the practice corroborated this account to CBS 6.

CBS 6 were also provided with emails and texts from a third dentist, who had collected samples of the water at the Forrest Hill Avenue clinic, and sent them to a lab to be tested.

The results show a heterotrophic bacteria count 13 times greater than acceptable drinking water standards.

Daniel's dentist said that she immediately reached out to a number of staff members about the issue, and showed CBS 6 a text chain between multiple dentists at the practice.

A text from one dentist said "my techs are telling me more stuff. I feel ill.  My mind is blown right now.  Our OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) officer claims she never actually received proper training, which is obvious."

And another text from another dentist read: "I think Byrd is covering his butt not trying to make it right for the patients."

Daniel's dentist said she also emailed the owner of the practice, Dr. Richard Byrd, and his General Manager, Reid Sowder, on August 27, 2017.

Owner Richard Byrd, and his General Manager, Reid Sowder

"Over the course of the following week after this occurred, I got several email updates from the owner and the manager saying they were working to take protective action to protect the staff and the patients," the dentist said.

In various emails between Sowder and Daniel's dentist, he thanks her for "bringing to our attention some areas of concern that have given us the opportunity for improvement."

He told her he ordered new hand pieces and was evaluating their infection control sterilization systems and will make any necessary changes.

He said the practice scheduled the installation of an in-line infiltration system for each dental unit, along with the cleaning of each water line and full laboratory testing.

He said they also scheduled staff-wide OSHA training.

In another email, Dr. Byrd himself told her "I am extremely concerned" and said the "issues are being addressed."

But, the whistleblower said she still felt compelled to file a complaint with the Virginia Department of Health Professions.

"In the hopes that they would immediately step in to keep patients from being treated until the details of this infection control breach could possibly be evaluated," she said.

But the dentist said it took the department over a month to request additional information about her complaint.

An email from a state investigator shown to CBS 6 by the dentist shows the state requesting that information.

"It feels like the only person being protected is the practice," Latham-Anderson said.

Three other dentists allowed their names to be included in the complaint, and Daniel's mom filed her own.

Daniel's mom also said Dr. Byrd never told her that her son may have been exposed to unsanitary equipment and water, though she said Byrd did call, but just to let her know that OSHA changed their regulations.

She recorded the conversation, transcribed it, and showed CBS 6 a copy.

Ann Latham-Anderson

"Never mentioned that something hadn't been done properly?" Hipolit asked.

"In fact, I asked, I specifically said does that mean there was something that was not up to OSHA standards that you have not rectified? ‘That just means, no, no, no… when they make changes, we make our patients aware," Latham-Anderson said of Byrd’s response.

And that's why Daniel's dentist said she turned to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers, because she doesn't believe the practice ever informed parents about the issues.

"And at this point you believe they have not been notified?" Hipolit asked.

"That is correct, it is my understanding that patients do not know what happened… that they have been exposed to infectious material, as far as I am aware, no patient has been offered counseling or testing," the dentist replied.

CBS 6 called the practice and spoke with the General Manager, Reid Sowder, over the phone.

He said the practice is beyond compliance and maintained OSHA standards across the board.

He said they only had one incident where an instrument was cleaned with a high-level disinfectant instead of being sterilized with an autoclave, and he said they alerted the two patients in question.

Sowder also claimed the practice had the dental board come by and investigate, and they found no incidents of non-compliance.

And, he claimed that Daniel's dentist was a disgruntled employee.

Sowder offered to give us a tour of the clinic, and CBS 6 were in the process of scheduling that when he texted to say the practice had retained legal counsel, and all questions should be directed to their lawyer.

Daniel's mom said she took her son to a pediatrician, and he tested negative for any problems potentially related to his visits to Dr. Byrd's office, but he still has to wait several more months and be re-tested before he's completely in the clear.

"You expect as a patient to have some protection against these kinds of things, and from what I can tell the only person protected is the practice, and the patients are not protected," Latham-Anderson said.

CBS 6 contacted the Department of Health Professions, but they would not confirm to us that they are investigating the allegations.

Daniel's dentist has filed a whistleblower lawsuit through OSHA claiming that Byrd's practice stopped scheduling her to work because of her complaints.

Meanwhile, the attorney representing Dr. Byrd and his practice sent the station a letter late Tuesday in response to Daniel's dentist's allegations.

In the letter, the attorney states that federal law prohibits the disclosure of any patient care information, therefore, the disclosure of any patient care information would be improper.

The attorney also states that a complaint filed by Daniel's dentist to the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) office alleging improper sterilization and water line safety was closed by VOSH and the agency took no action against Dr. Byrd.

Furthermore, the lawyer wrote Dr. Byrd and his practice fully cooperated with the Virginia Department of Health Professions review of the matter, and no comment can be made on the review.

He also said Dr. Byrd and his team provided and continue to provide excellent patient care, and the care is supplemented by routine and regular OSHA safety training, education, and inspections.

He highlighted that there is no evidence of any patient being harmed by Dr. Byrd's office.

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