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Officials find problems at Mass. pharmacy

BOSTON -- Water from a leaking boiler collected just outside a room that was supposed to be sterile. Floor mats used by technicians were filled with dirt and debris. Drugs were shipped out before the company even confirmed they were sterile.

State officials said Tuesday that they found these and other problems at the New England Compounding Center during a preliminary investigation into the company, linked to a deadly outbreak of meningitis.

The probe can't yet conclusively prove what caused the outbreak, a top health official said. In the meantime, Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick said he wants to tighten oversight at similar companies, including with surprise inspections -- the first of which happened Tuesday.

The state has also moved to permanently revoke the company's operating license, as well as the licenses of its top three pharmacists.

"Those whose laboratory practices caused this outbreak should never practice pharmacy or manufacture in Massachusetts again," Patrick said.

The outbreak of fungal meningitis, an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, has sickened 308 people, including 24 who have died, in 17 states.

The outbreak has been linked to a steroid made by the NECC and taken mainly for back pain.

Compounding pharmacies like NECC custom mix solutions in doses or forms generally not commercially available.

Investigators found the company didn't sterilize its products long enough and didn't adequately test whether its sterilization equipment was working, said Dr. Madeleine Biondolillo, director of the state Department of Public Health's Bureau of Healthcare Safety.

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