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Bioterrorism experts call for unified anthrax response plan

The Homeland Security Department should take the lead in developing national environmental testing guidelines in case of another anthrax attack, several biohazard experts said Monday. The department must also work with the Postal Service and other relevant agencies to determine if 280 mail processing facilities should be retested for possible anthrax contamination.

Currently, the nation is plagued by a set of inconsistent protocols used to test Postal Service facilities for anthrax contamination. This has led to confusing and unreliable data being shared among different federal and state agencies, according to Robert Hamilton, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"We need a single leading federal agency to implement a unified, optimized and verifiable approach to environmental testing for the detection indoors of dispersed agents of bioterrorism," Hamilton told the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations.

Officials from the General Accounting Office and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases endorsed the idea.

During the anthrax attacks in October and November 2001, the Postal Service and other agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, essentially created environmental testing guidelines on the fly. There were no standard protocols instructing the Postal Service as to what kind of testing is most appropriate for its diverse mix of facilities.

The dilemma was most obvious at a mail processing plant in Wallingford, Conn. After anthrax was found in a Washington, D.C. facility, the Postal Service tested more than 280 plants nationwide for possible contamination. Using a testing method of dry cotton swabs along machine surfaces, the Connecticut facility showed no contamination. After an elderly woman who received mail from the plant died, however, the Postal Service re-tested the facility. Again the results came back negative. Eventually, the CDC came in and conducted tests using wet swabs. The results showed contamination. The facility was not shutdown, but the infected machines were cleaned and workers were given antibiotics.

Unlike Washington, no Postal Service workers at the Wallingford facility became ill or died.

"The events that unfolded at the Wallingford postal facility represent, to a large part, a lack of knowledge and experience with biological data," Col. Erik Henchal, commander, USAMRID, said. This led to conflicting test results and misunderstandings about what workforce protections to put in place, he added.

With the protocols now being questioned, the Postal Service should reassess whether all of its facilities need to be retested, said Keith Rhodes, chief technologist at GAO. He added that this effort should be done in conjunction with the Homeland Security Department, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, CDC and postal worker unions.