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Last Updated

06 Dec 2002

Source: Boston Globe, July 27, 2002.

An anthrax cleanup stirs uncertainties

Caution guides effort at D.C. postal facility

By Bret Ladine, Globe Correspondent

WASHINGTON - Government officials attempted to reassure Congress at a field hearing yesterday that the Brentwood postal facility in the nation's capital could be safely decontaminated of deadly anthrax spores in a clean-up effort scheduled to begin Monday, but acknowledged that the massive mail processing center would probably not reopen until next spring.  Leaders from the US Postal Service, the Centers for Disease Control, and the District of Columbia's health department gave details of the planned cleanup, which involves the use of chlorine dioxide gas to kill the remaining spores. Area residents expressed concern about possible exposure to the gas if it leaks from the Brentwood facility during decontamination, and union leaders urged better protection for postal workers.

Tests in a tented area within the Brentwood complex will begin Monday, and if that effort proceeds safely, the full-scale cleanup will begin in a few weeks, said Thomas Day, vice president of engineering for the postal service.

The Brentwood sorting center, which employed 2,000 people, had been handling most of the mail destined for Capitol Hill, but was closed after two postal workers there died (cases 15 and 16) after inhaling anthrax spores last fall.  Employees were offered antibiotics, and it was determined that the anthrax-laden letters sent to Senators Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont passed through the facility, contaminating it.

While the Hart Senate Office building was decontaminated within weeks of the anthrax exposure, the 17-million-cubic-foot Brentwood facility has remained virtually untouched as specialists have cautiously gone about the task of determining appropriate safety procedures.

Even if all goes according to plan, the Brentwood facility would probably not be back in service for several months.

''The fact that the building [will be] decontaminated of anthrax does not mean that we will open the doors,'' Day said, noting that the postal service plans substantial renovations to the complex, including new offices, equipment, and carpeting.

Few are concerned, however, about the slow pace of the cleanup effort.

''I'm not critical of the fact that it's taken so long,'' said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's non-voting representative in Congress. ''In fact, I say do it slow, but do it right.''

Despite community input and the inclusion of union leaders on scientific evaluation committees, some local residents are skeptical about the plans. They fear that inadequate attention has been given to the possibility that chlorine dioxide gas could leak out of the Brentwood complex and into their community.

''One of our big problems, and perhaps our major problem here, is containing fear,'' Norton said at the hearing yesterday on the campus of Gallaudet University. Holmes said there had been poor communication between government specialists and residents about the chemicals being used and their potential effects.

Union leaders testified that postal employees are concerned about the effects of anthrax and whether they will be adequately protected in the future. They said that health specialists are not likely to be trusted, given their delay in closing the Brentwood facility after the anthrax attacks in October.

James M. McGee, president of the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, said that public health authorities failed to recognize the risk of anthrax exposure in a timely manner and have failed to follow up with postal employees after their antibiotic regimens ended.

McGee said systems in place to monitor the health of postal employees are inadequate.

Holmes called upon the CDC to commission a definitive study of Brentwood employees to determine whether the group was experiencing any lasting health effects because of the anthrax exposure.

But she also said that some allegations by postal workers concerning health problems were unfounded. Firm scientific evidence was ''the only way to help us get beyond our fears,'' she said.

The Postal Service's Day said that new technology is being developed to help detect biohazards in the mail. Pending the passage of legislation, he said, he expects devices incorporating new technology to be in place several months after the Brentwood facility reopens.

In the meantime, union leaders fear that employees will not want to return or that they will remain at risk. Union officials noted that mail is tested before senators receive it but that postal employees do not have that benefit.