- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The U.S. Postal Service issued and then ignored guidelines in the middle of the anthrax attacks in fall 2001 that directed that postal locations receiving a suspect letter be shut down.
The delay in shutting down Brentwood, a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week mail processing facility, increased the chances that the more than 2,000 employees could be exposed to anthrax. Two Brentwood employees died of inhalation anthrax, two more were hospitalized and the rest were put on antibiotics because they might have been exposed to anthrax.
Postal officials issued the policy to supervisors Oct. 19, 2001, four days after an anthrax-laced letter was opened at the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. These guidelines state that the discovery of a "suspicious unopened/sealed envelope," a description fitting the Daschle letter, should trigger postal supervisors to shut down equipment, evacuate and cordon off the area.
Despite the policy, and knowledge on Oct. 15 that the Daschle letter had passed through the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, the facility was not shut down until Oct. 21, two days after the policy was issued.
Both the Postal Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta had anthrax policies in place years before the fatal attacks.
The CDC has maintained that it left Brentwood open because it was confident the tiny anthrax spores could not pass through a sealed envelope. The agency's precautions for anthrax should have raised concern that the agent had leaked out of the Daschle envelope and led authorities to close the facility sooner to protect the employees, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, chairman of the Federation of American Scientists Working Group on Biological Weapons and a professor at the State University of New York at Purchase, told UPI.
Disease samples are sent by mail among researchers, so the federal government put regulations in place as long ago as 1980 that set standards for safe packaging. Such samples, including anthrax, must be mailed in three-layered packaging, consisting of sturdy, watertight containers to prevent leakage.
In 1995 the CDC Office of Health and Safety issued its interpretation of the federal guidelines. In addition to advising researchers to use the three-layered packing system, it advised against using envelopes. "Most, if not all, bags, envelopes, and the like are not acceptable outer shipping containers," the CDC wrote at the time.
These regulations should have been an indication that an envelope, even if taped and sealed as the Daschle letter was, would still probably leak anthrax, Mrs. Rosenberg said.
"The CDC had given some thought to the prospect anthrax could leak during mailing and certainly they knew [the Daschle letter] was not packaged according to prescription," Mrs. Rosenberg said.
Asked why the mailing regulations did not suggest to the agency that anthrax could leak out of the envelopes, CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant said the agency's response "was based on the science that we knew at that time."
He added, "There was nothing to suggest that anthrax could be a threat as far as anyone coming into contact with a closed letter."
By the time the Daschle letter was opened, however, two mail handlers who touched but never opened anthrax letters in Florida had become ill.
"I don't think there was any question there was anthrax in the letters and it was getting around," Mrs. Rosenberg said. For the CDC to say it did not know it could leak out of a sealed envelope, she said, is "not a good argument."
The Postal Service has maintained that it did not shut down Brentwood because it was relying on the advice from the CDC. Its own guidelines, however, adopted in 2001 as well as a previous policy issued in 1999 called for evacuating facilities on discovery of a suspicious letter. The 1999 policy was developed after several anthrax hoax letters had passed through the postal system.
Postal officials declined to comment on why the 1999 and the 2001 policies were not followed. Postal service spokeswoman Kristin Krathwohl initially told UPI that she was not aware of the 2001 guidance and would look into it but did not return repeated phone calls or e-mail messages seeking further comment.
The watchdog group Judicial Watch recently obtained notes from a diary believed to be from a Brentwood supervisor that indicate that the Postal Service knew Brentwood was contaminated with anthrax by Oct. 18.
A diary entry dated Oct. 18 states that the Postal Service arranged for a company called URS to test the facility for anthrax. The diary notes that the test results came back positive Oct. 18 and that CDC officials were informed of this when they arrived Oct. 19.
Mrs. Krathwohl denied that postal officials knew the facility was contaminated Oct. 18. She said postal officials were so confident that the facility was safe, Postmaster General John E. Potter held a news conference on the floor of Brentwood on Oct. 18 "to assure everyone."
However, the Postal Service suspected anthrax contamination on that date, if not before, because hazardous-material specialists from the Fairfax County Fire Department arrived Oct. 18 at the request of postal officials to test the facility for anthrax.
Workers wearing protective suits to prevent infection tested Brentwood while the employees not protected in any way watched, said Larry Powell, 53, a review clerk at Brentwood. Fairfax officials confirmed the account.
More than a year after it was shut down, the Brentwood facility remains closed because of anthrax contamination. The final cleanup began Saturday.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide