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Last Updated

23 Apr 2003

Source: New Haven Register, April 23, 2003

State backs its handling of anthrax incident

Michael Gannon, Register Staff

One of the state's lead investigators into anthrax contamination at a Wallingford postal facility in 2001 has defended the Department of Public Health's actions, which came under scrutiny in a federal report released Monday.

Dr. James Hadler, director of infectious diseases for the state Public Health Department, said Tuesday that findings of the federal General Accounting Office's report must be taken in a broad scientific context.

He also said U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., was unfair in stating Monday that state public health officials, "through their own missteps, put Wallingford employees at serious and unnecessary risk" during their investigation.

The state and postal officials came under fire from the Postal Workers Union in September 2002, when re-test results it requested the previous February showed four contaminated sites in the Wallingford sorting facility.

Hadler said the Public Health Department's terminology remains accurate for the situation in the facility.

Hadler pointed to three tests done with wipes between November and December 2001 that turned up negative. A fourth, more thorough test, conducted with vacuuming equipment, turned up contamination ranging from trace levels to nearly 3 million spores per half-gram.

"The No. 1 misunderstanding is the route of exposure (to anthrax)," Hadler said Tuesday. "You can have any number of spores sitting in dust on the ground. If that same number of spores are in a fine powder that is in people's breathing space, that's another issue. It would affect anybody."

Hadler said even the largest concentrations found in Wallingford are believed to have been deposited there in mid-October 2001, meaning they had been on the floor beneath sorting machinery for about six weeks before they were found.

"In that time, no one had been infected," Hadler said. "If you have six weeks with no exposure, that is a very different meaning."

The Wallingford facility on Research Drive came under scrutiny during the national anthrax scare in December 2001, after the death of Otillie Lundgren (case 23), 94, of Oxford. Lundgren and postal workers in New York and Washington, D.C., were among five people who died of anthrax exposure in late 2001.

The GAO report said that a half-gram sample taken from Wallingford had nearly 3 million spores.

The maximum level taken from the Brentwood Facility in Washington, D.C, where two workers died, was 2 million for a one-gram sample. Hadler said that was not a truly accurate way to compare the relative airborne exposure at the two plants.

"At Brentwood, you could gather spores by touching a (cotton swab) to any surface," he said. "The first time around, tests came up positive. It was clear anthrax was all over the place. It was clearly much more contaminated than the Wallingford facility. In Connecticut, we found (spores) six weeks later. Those are important differences."

Lieberman requested the GAO investigation in 2002 as a member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Leslie Phillips, a committee staff member, said Lieberman stood by his remarks.

"We're not experts on how anthrax is dispersed," Phillips said. "That is why the GAO did the investigation. Senator Lieberman based his remarks on facts found by a non-partisan, unbiased agency."