The government agency responsible for protecting the public from “health, safety and security threats” is facing scrutiny for safety lapses that might have exposed some of its workers to anthrax spores.
Late last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that 75 government workers at its Atlanta laboratories might have been exposed to anthrax “after established safety practices were not followed.” According to subsequent news reports, the number could be as high as 84 workers.
Although CDC said “the risk of infection is very low,” the agency noted that it is “taking aggressive steps to protect the health of all involved,” including providing antibiotics for potentially exposed staff members.
“Based on the review to date, CDC believes that other CDC staff, family members and the general public are not at risk of exposure and do not need to take any protective action,” CDC said in a news release.
CDC – which oversees NIOSH – said the safety lapse occurred in a bioterrorism lab at its Roybal campus in Atlanta.
The lab “was preparing B. anthracis samples for research in other CDC labs at lower biosafety levels to yield new means of detecting dangerous pathogens in environmental samples,” the agency said. “However, the lab used a procedure that did not adequately inactivate the samples.”
Workers moved the potentially infectious samples to three Roybal campus labs that were not equipped to handle live anthrax, the agency said.
“Workers, believing the samples were inactivated, were not wearing adequate personal protective equipment while handling the material,” CDC said.
Lab safety investigators concluded that procedures in two of the three labs might have aerosolized the anthrax spores, sometime between June 6 and June 13, according to CDC. The agency conducted environmental sampling and decontaminated laboratory and hallway areas.
CDC said it discovered the exposure on June 13, “when the original bacterial plates were gathered for disposal and B. anthracis colonies (live bacteria) were found on the plates.”
“These plates had appeared negative for B. anthracis at the time samples were distributed to the other CDC laboratories,” CDC said. “The review began immediately to assess the health risk, and those workers handling the plates were immediately notified.”
CDC said it will hand over the investigation to the Department of Agriculture, according to a Reuters report.