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Last Updated

18 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, June 15, 2002.

Brentwood Deaths Put Employees On Edge

Mail Workers, Families Suspect Anthrax Link

By Manny Fernandez and Phuong Ly, Washington Post Staff Writers

Eight workers from Washington's Brentwood postal plant have died since September, in addition to the two highly publicized deaths in last fall's anthrax attack, and the fatalities have alarmed some employees who fear that the cases may be related to the bioterrorism incident.

Health officials said anthrax was not the direct cause of any of the eight deaths, and they noted that the number of deaths over that period is not statistically unusual for the 1,700-employee Brentwood population.

But the explanations have done little to reassure those who worked at the contaminated mail-processing facility. Several of them allege that postal and health officials have been slow in providing information about the deaths and that they are not doing enough to monitor the medical condition of the plant's workforce.

Relatives of three of the dead postal workers also have doubts, saying they are not convinced that the deaths were unrelated to the anthrax attack.

When two anthrax-laced letters passed through the plant on Brentwood Road NE in October on their way to Capitol Hill, two postal employees became widely known victims -- Thomas L. Morris Jr., 55 (case 15), and Joseph P. Curseen, 47 (case 16), both of whom died of inhalation anthrax.

But the eight other Brentwood workers have died far from the public eye. Health and postal officials said four died of heart disease and two of cancer. In the other two deaths, which occurred last month and this month, the cause of death is still undetermined.

Officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that although none of the eight died of inhalation anthrax, more research is needed before the CDC can rule out a link to the anthrax episode. They said they are doing further study of the cases as part of a larger effort to monitor the condition of 9,700 people nationwide who were considered at risk of anthrax exposure and were advised to take antibiotics.

The study will establish, for example, whether exposure to the bacteria, the emotional toll of the crisis or even the medication might be "accelerating natural processes," said Bradley Perkins, head of the CDC's anthrax investigations and a specialist in infectious diseases.

"This is a new experience, and I think it would be naive to say that we understood all the possible consequences from such an event," Perkins said.

Brentwood has been closed since October, and postal officials said they will begin the massive effort to rid the plant of anthrax spores by the end of the summer, though no date has been set.

The Postal Service and the CDC declined to release the names of the eight workers who died, citing privacy concerns. A reporter was able to confirm the names of four victims through other sources.

Three victims were women, and five were men, postal officials said. Their average age was 56.

CDC officials said the number of employee deaths is consistent with the totals from previous years. Seven Brentwood employees died in the fiscal 2001 year, which ended in September; 11 in 2000; nine in 1999; and 17 in 1998, according to the Postal Service.

But to many of the workers' colleagues, the deaths are more than coincidence. "People are afraid for their own lives," said Dena Briscoe, president of Brentwood Exposed, which was started in January by former and current Brentwood workers as an employee support and advocacy group. "People are looking around wondering who's going to have the next heart attack."

Fueling the anxiety is a sense among the workers that postal management and public health officials have not been forthcoming.

Workers said that until this month, when the CDC released some details about the eight fatalities, their only source of information was the rumor mill. "We're seeing our co-workers die, and no explanation is being given," said Brentwood carrier Frank Evans.

Leaders of Brentwood Exposed also said that roughly 200 employees have been sick or hospitalized since October and that officials have not taken the problem seriously.

Postal officials acknowledged that there is a high level of anxiety among Brentwood workers but said they are working to assuage fears. They said they held a series of town-hall meetings with employees in May and have named coordinators at the facilities where Brentwood employees have been temporarily reassigned to address worker concerns.

When asked how many Brentwood workers have been hospitalized since October, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service said the CDC is responsible for tracking the health of the employees.

CDC officials said they did not have such figures and did not know whether the rate of illness in the Brentwood population has risen since October because they are still compiling responses from a telephone survey of those workers as well as the thousands of others nationwide who were prescribed medication.

They said that so far, about 70 percent of the group has been surveyed and about three-fourths of the respondents reported some side effect to the antibiotics, a higher percentage than expected. Complaints included headaches, fatigue and muscle aches, but because there was no control group to study, doctors did not know whether those problems were from the drugs or caused by other factors, CDC officials said.

Adding to the concerns of Brentwood workers is the case of an ill 37-year-old postal inspector who worked on the anthrax investigation at the plant and examined a letter-sorting machine and packages that were contaminated. He has been experiencing severe fatigue and other symptoms associated with exposure to anthrax spores, but blood cultures for anthrax come up negative, said Tyler C. Cymet, a doctor at Baltimore's Sinai Hospital who is treating the man.

"I feel that his symptoms are related to the anthrax exposure, even though he has no known form of anthrax," said Cymet, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Doctors at the CDC have said that anthrax spores can cause infections for up to 45 days after exposure. But Cymet said questions remain about what happens to a person after that, adding that there could be a prolonged course to the illness rather than sudden death.

A reporter was able to reach relatives of three of the eight Brentwood workers who have died. In each case, the family members said they had lingering questions about the death.

Aubrey Corbin Jr., 58, of Cheverly, who died May 13, saw his health dramatically deteriorate after the October anthrax attacks, family members said. They said Corbin, an athletic father of two who ran marathons, lifted weights and was nicknamed "Hercules" by co-workers, suddenly suffered from fatigue, shortness of breath, swollen joints and other ailments.

"There's no way on this Earth that I'll believe that my brother, all of a sudden, became a sickly, deathly ill person for no reason at all," said Corbin's sister, Sylvia M. Berry.

The Maryland medical examiner's office is still conducting an autopsy to determine the cause of Corbin's death, but anthrax has been ruled out, said David R. Fowler, Maryland's chief medical examiner. Preliminary results indicate that Corbin had heart disease and an enlarged heart, which could have been caused by hypertension, Fowler said.

Another of the workers, Johnny Franklin Cheek, 55, of Clinton, was playing basketball the day after Christmas when he passed out on the court. The official cause of death was heart failure. Cheek played a variety of sports and stayed in shape, said his wife, Vicki Cheek. "We just don't have closure in a sense to his death," she said.

Samuel Robert Davis, 52, of Suitland died April 2 after collapsing at a golf course in Waldorf. Doctors told his wife, Sharon M. Davis, that he had suffered a seizure and a heart attack. "The only thing that concerns me was that he had a seizure, and he never had a seizure before," she said.

A fourth worker, Katherine Smith Daniels, 59, of the District, had respiratory problems for two days before her Nov. 16 death, health officials said, and an autopsy ruled that she died of a heart attack and heart disease. Her relatives could not be reached.

Fowler and other Washington area medical examiners -- who generally limit autopsies to those who have died from violence, suicide or unexplained circumstances -- said they are now more apt to request autopsies in the deaths of postal workers, particularly those associated with Brentwood.

But the CDC's Perkins said there is no standard system for reporting such deaths, and he acknowledged that information doesn't reach the federal level "in a rapid fashion." To get medical records from physicians, data from death certificates and information on autopsies, the CDC must rely on state health departments, local public health agencies and the Postal Service, he said.

At least one other death associated with Brentwood has raised concerns of family members. Daniel James Tubbs, 36, of Germantown worked for an engineering consulting firm and did contract compliance work during the initial Brentwood cleanup. He was found dead in his town house Dec. 27, and the cause was ruled to be severe heart disease, authorities said.

Relatives said Tubbs was health-conscious, worked out at the gym nearly every day and had a physical exam annually as required for his job. Even after receiving her son's autopsy report, Sue Tubbs said she is not sure that anthrax bacteria had nothing to do with his death. "I just can't let it go to rest," she said. "I still have questions."

Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.