Postal, Public Health Officials Misunderstood Anthrax

WASHINGTON – Federal agencies need to err on the side of caution when considering how best to protect employees from potentially life-threatening attacks, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report released Thursday by Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. The report – requested by Lieberman in 2002 to assess the federal and state agency response after a series of postal facilities were contaminated by anthrax – found that postal and public health officials did not have critical information about the nature of anthrax and, therefore, underestimated its risk to the health of postal employees.

“We have learned hard lessons and mourn the five lives lost in the process,” Lieberman said. “But since the 2001 anthrax attacks at various postal facilities, we have all become wiser. We now know that terrorists are intent on attacking us again and so we should take GAO’s advice and err on the side of caution.” Contaminated letters caused 22 cases of inhalation and cutaneous anthrax in the Fall of 2001. Nine of the 22 cases involved postal workers, including two of the five fatalities. As Chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee at the time, Lieberman held two hearings on terrorism through the mail. The GAO report examined the response at five postal facilities – in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Florida – that were contaminated by letters that passed through them. According to the GAO report, postal officials considered the health risks to its employees ahead of its mission to process the mail. But public health officials advised the Postal Service that its employees were “at minimal risk,” thus the facilities were kept open. Not until the Centers for Disease Control diagnosed Postal employees in Washington D.C. and Trenton, N.J., with inhalation and cutaneous anthrax were their respective facilities shut down. “Critical information that could have alerted public health agencies and the Postal Service to the health risks that postal employees faced, such as the way the spores were prepared and the potential for anthrax spores to leak from taped, unopened envelopes in sufficient quantities to cause inhalation anthrax, was not available to them until after Brentwood’s closure,” the GAO report found. “According to CDC and the Postal Service, they would have made different decisions if they had understood the health risks to postal employees earlier.” The GAO also found that “problems with the accuracy, clarity and timeliness of the information provided led employees to question the information they received.” In an earlier report requested by Lieberman, the GAO found problems in the response to the anthrax attack at the Wallingford, Conn., processing and distribution center. That report found that Wallingford employees were deprived of significant information that would have helped them make informed decisions in December 2001 after the facility was found to be contaminated by anthrax. Postal managers’ neglect in disclosing details of the contamination – which in one area of the facility far exceeded the level of contamination found at Washington D.C.’s Brentwood facility, where two employees died – bred worker distrust and diminished the Postal Service’s credibility, GAO said. 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 the mails, as had the previous fatalities. “Postal employees are hard-working, dedicated servants,” Lieberman said. “They provide us with a communications lifeline we could not do without. Let this be a lesson to us all: There can be no such thing as too much caution when it comes to deadly biological agents.”