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Anthrax scare is the latest safety lapse at CDC

ATLANTA — An incident that potentially exposed dozens of workers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to anthrax is the latest in a series of safety problems at the Atlanta-based facility in recent years.

Earlier this month, lab workers at the CDC’s campus didn’t properly deactivate samples of deadly anthrax bacteria before sending them to lower-level labs to be used in experiments. Workers in the other labs also weren’t wearing adequate safety gear while handling the samples. Two or three employees who possibly came into contact with the bacteria have experienced colds or flulike symptoms, though no one has been diagnosed with anthrax, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said in an interview.

Seventy-three employees were on powerful antibiotics as of late Monday afternoon as a preventive measure. The agency is investigating the incident, while a team from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will conduct an independent review beginning this week, Skinner said.

The agency has emphasized that family members of CDC employees and the general public are not at risk for exposure. Anthrax may be contracted through the air, but it can’t spread through human-to-human contact.

The anthrax scare is the most recent in a string of missteps that has raised concerns among legislators, federal health officials and bioterrorism experts about inadequate training, lax security and faulty equipment at the Atlanta facility.

Three separate reports by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, from 2008 to 2010, highlighted numerous problems that endangered workers and left deadly toxins vulnerable to being stolen or misplaced.

Among other problems, investigators discovered that workers had not been trained properly, if at all. They also found that people not approved to handle toxins — including a security guard — signed for package deliveries of potentially deadly substances, and that inappropriately coded keycards provided workers access to secure areas they weren’t cleared to be in.

The CDC’s work is very complex, and, unfortunately, mistakes happen from time to time, Skinner said.

“We move quickly to understand why the mistake was made, and we take swift action to make sure mistakes don’t happen again,” he said. “I can’t say enough how important the safety of our workforce is. It’s top priority.”

Another report last year from the Government Accountability Office highlighted a power failure caused when construction workers accidentally cut a critical grounding while digging. The error went unnoticed by CDC facility managers, according to the report.

In 2012, Congress looked into safety hazards at the CDC’s $214 million biosafety lab facility, known as Building 18, which is used for experiments involving anthrax, the SARS coronavirus, monkeypox and other potentially deadly toxins.

The inquiry, lead by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, came after concerns were raised over fire safety issues and problems with airflow systems designed to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

Those problems have been fixed, Skinner said.

Now the committee is closely monitoring the anthrax exposure incident, according to a joint statement by the committee chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., who heads an oversight and investigations subcommittee.

“There is no room for error or negligence when it comes to bioterror research and every precaution must be taken to ensure the safety of our scientists,” they said.

The leader of the lab team in the anthrax incident has been removed from that position, pending the results of an investigation. All of the exposed labs and other areas have been decontaminated, and samples from those sites have thus far tested negative for anthrax, Skinner said. Testing is expected to continue through this week.

On Friday, CDC Director Tom Frieden sent an email to employees apologizing for waiting too long to inform the broader workforce about the anthrax exposure.

Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. The bacteria are found naturally in soil and commonly affect animals such as cattle, sheep and goats more than people, according to the National Institutes of Health. Symptoms of anthrax can include fever, chills, shortness of breath, confusion and body aches, among other conditions.

In 2001, anthrax sent through the mail killed five people and sickened 22 others, according to the NIH. While anthrax can be deadly, those infected can be easily treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early.
 

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