Report: Postal Workers Weren't Told Extent of Anthrax Contamination

April 23, 2003
According to a report from the General Accounting Office (GAO), postal officials and state health officials in Connecticut violated OSHA regulations when they failed to inform postal employees at the Wallingford, Ct., mail facility that it was more contaminated by anthrax than the Brentwood mail facility in Washington, D.C.

Two workers at the Brentwood facility died following exposure to anthrax. The facility has been closed since the anthrax attacks, and is set to reopen this summer after months of decontamination efforts.

According to the GAO report, after three negative tests at the Wallingford facility, epidemiologists in early December 2001 found a concentration of 3 million anthrax spores per half a gram from samples taken from one of four suspect mail sorting machines, far more than the 8,000 to 10,000 spores considered harmful, and more than the 8,700 to 2 million spores per gram found at the Brentwood facility.

Work never stopped at the Wallingford facility and the building was never closed down, like the Brentwood distribution center. Oxford, Conn., resident Ottilie Lundgren was hospitalized Nov. 16, 2001, and died Nov. 21 of anthrax inhalation. No trace of anthrax was found in her home; experts presumed she came into contact with it through mail delivered to her home from the Wallingford facility.

"Although the extent of contamination was much greater than initially believed following the assurances of the chief epidemiologist [at the Connecticut Department of Health]," the GAO report said, "postal managers said they informed workers that there was 'no additional risk' to employees because all the steps needed to protect them had already been taken."

The GAO investigation was conducted at the request of Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who made the results of the study public this week.

"It is difficult for me to fathom why postal workers were kept in the dark about this level of anthrax contamination," Lieberman said. "Given the fatalities that had already occurred in Connecticut, Florida, Washington and New York, it's clear that postal and health officials, through their own missteps, put Wallingford employees at serious and unnecessary risk. We can only thank God that no postal employees died as a result."

The GAO report documents a series of misjudgments on the part of health officials. When Postal supervisors pressed the Connecticut Department of Health on possible risks to workers, they were told, among other things, that there was no evidence of airborne anthrax because no spores had been found in the heating, ventilation, or air conditioning system. However, before a routine cleaning of the rafters in April 2002, additional testing of the area came up positive, contradicting the earlier assertion.

The Health Department's chief epidemiologist and experts from the Centers for Disease Control also agreed that "workers were not expected to contract the illness because the contamination was found weeks after what public health officials considered the likely incubation period for the disease," even though some people in earlier cases of anthrax exposure had contracted inhalation anthrax 43 days after their exposure, the GAO reported. The letters sent to Senators Tom Daschle and Pat Leahy, according to the GAO, entered the "mail stream... weeks before contamination was identified at the facility and, thus, well after the period they viewed as the likely period of maximum risk of exposure..."

The GAO also said the Postal Service violated OSHA regulations when it refused to divulge within 15 days the quantitative test results after a American Postal Workers Union leader asked for them in January and February 2002. The results were finally disclosed in September 2002.

Postal officials were not cited, but OHSA noted a "failure to effectively communicate issues can have an effect on a worker's health and safety [and] can lead to fear and mistrust."

Patrick R. Donahoe, U.S. Postal Service executive vice president, said test results should be released "as quickly as possible." In response to the GAO report, Donahoe said the agency is revising its guidelines for responding to anthrax incidents.

"Let this be a lesson to us: There can be no such thing as too much caution when it comes to deadly biological agents," said Lieberman, who is chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee. Lieberman held two hearings on terrorism through the mail in October 2001 and is now awaiting another GAO report he requested in conjunction with Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., on how the Postal Service and other government agencies treated employees at selected Postal facilities contaminated by anthrax in 2001.

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