The Montgomery County (Md.) Council is considering a bill that would ban genetic discrimination in the workplace to prevent workers with genetic markers for certain diseases being denied health care or jobs.
Council member Philip M. Andrews said concerns about using people’s genes against them is what spurred him to draft the bill, which he plans to introduce today.
“It’s imperative that people know that the information that comes out of genetic testing is used properly,” the Gaithersburg Democrat said.
Genetic markers indicate the likelihood of people contracting certain diseases, like cancer. Mr. Andrews said companies seeking to cut their health care costs can fire or bar from promotion workers likely to develop those diseases.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protects workers against discrimination based on existing conditions not on conditions that could develop, Mr. Andrews said.
Companies should be able to use genetic information for some purposes such as not allowing someone prone to seizures to fly commercial airplanes but that same person should not be barred from an office job, he said.
While he said he has received support from many council members, not all are yet willing to put their support behind the bill.
“It’s not clear to me how big a problem this is and whether this is necessary,” Nancy Dacek, a Germantown Republican, said.
“I’m going to need to be convinced that this is a problem we have to do something about.”
Mr. Andrews said he has not experienced genetic discrimination, but has heard stories of local people running into problems because of what their genes indicate:
One woman with cystic fibrosis was threatened with loss of health coverage and no coverage for her children unless her husband was tested and found to be negative.
n In another incident, a man who worked for a private company for nearly 30 years was fired soon after it was determined he had a marker for multiple sclerosis.
The bill would prohibit employers from using genetic information to discriminate in the hiring, firing or promotion of employees. It also would prohibit other workplace decisions based on genetic information, he said.
The bill is modeled after an executive order signed by President Clinton in February that bans genetic discrimination in the federal workplace.
In 1982, a federal government survey found 1.6 percent of companies used genetic testing, while a study done in 1997 by the American Management Association found the number had jumped to between 6 percent and 10 percent, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Due to the lack of regulation regarding genetic testing, it is not clear how many companies currently test employees or use genetic information in making hiring decisions.
About 208 genetic research companies operate in Montgomery County, and many already have spoken out in favor of such legislation, Mr. Andrews said.
The cracking of the human genome the blueprint of human biology by the government-led Human Genome Project and Celera Technologies in Rockville has greatly advanced genetic testing, John Compton, the scientific director for GeneRx, a genetic testing firm in Rockville, said.
“There’s really been a tremendous expansion in our ability to test,” Mr. Compton, a former scientist with the National Institutes of Health, said.
“It’s one of the most visible and earliest developments built on the human genome project our ability to locate certain diseases,” he said.
Genetic testing is a largely unregulated field, which is why scientists are still grappling with the ethics of how testing is used, he said.
About 20 states have passed laws banning genetic discrimination in the workplace, but Maryland is not among them. The Montgomery County bill would be the first ban of its kind in the state, Mr. Andrews said.
“I think it’s very important that Montgomery County do this since we’re one of the world’s leaders in biotechnology research,” he said. “These changes are happening right here.”