WASHINGTON – Postal employees at the Wallingford processing and distribution center 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, according to an investigation conducted at the request of Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.
The General Accounting Office investigation, made public by Lieberman this week, tells of a series of miscalculations made by health and Postal officials about communicating what they knew to Postal employees. Their neglect in disclosing details of the contamination – which in one area of the facility tested 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. Furthermore, the Postal Service’s failure to respond to a union official’s request for the test results until seven months after the fact, violated Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s regulations.
“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.”
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. 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. Yet, based on recommendations from the chief epidemiologist at the Connecticut Department of Public Health, Postal Service officials told employees only that “trace amounts” of anthrax had been found, later that a “concentration of spores” had been found, and that health risks were “minimal.”
Work never stopped at the facility and the building was never closed down, as the Washington, D.C. distribution center had been. Workers were provided with antibiotics the day Otillie Lundgren died. “Although the extent of contamination was much greater than initially believed following the assurances of the Chief Epidemiologist,” 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 documented 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 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 employees are hard-working, dedicated servants. They provide us with a communications lifeline we could not do without,” Lieberman said. “Let this be a lesson to us: There can be no such thing as too much caution when it comes to deadly biological agents.”
Lieberman, who, as Chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, held two hearings on terrorism through the mail in October 2001, 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.