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Last Updated

18 Nov 2002

Source: New Haven Register, November 17, 2002.

Wallingford post office workers still angry, one year after anthrax contamination

Joanne M. Pelton, Naugatuck Valley Bureau Chief

WALLINGFORD — A week after Oxford resident Ottilie Lundgren (case 23) died of inhalation anthrax last November, investigators descended on the massive mail sorting facility here.

Lundgren’s mail had passed through the distribution center, and authorities suspected that the 94-year-old widow had come into contact with anthrax spores through her mail.

By Dec. 9, postal authorities knew the results of two rounds of tests — 3 million anthrax spores had been discovered in the building.

But postal authorities told the employees at the time that only trace amounts of anthrax spores had been found, according to John H. Dirzius, president of the Greater Connecticut Area local of the American Postal Workers Union.

The workers did not find out the extent of the contamination until April, when the Postal Service decontaminated the facility.

At that point the union began asking to see the written test reports, but the U.S. Postal Service did not turn over the report until Sept. 4.

The union filed a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which exonerated the Postal Service Oct. 7.

The union recently appealed that ruling.

"We’re still angry," said Dirzius. "We’re lucky we dodged the bullet and nobody died. Hopefully this will never happen again and this is all behind us, but it could happen again. We filed the complaint because we weren’t informed in a life-and-death situation."

Some 1,250 employees work at the Wallingford facility.

Carl Walton, spokesman for the Postal Service in Connecticut, said the Postal Service conducted an intense investigation. "The Postal Service acted responsibly," he said.

Testing was also done at the Seymour Post Office, and no spores were found there.

Lundgren and postal workers from New York and Washington, D.C., were among five people who died following exposure to anthrax last fall.

Four sorting machines at the Wallingford facility tested positive for anthrax contamination, and some spores were also found on the ceiling above the machines.

The entire facility was decontaminated.

Dirzius said more than 200 workers were tested for anthrax and were put on the antibiotic drug Cipro as a precaution.

"It was just a horribly stressful time for all of us, yet our workers went to work each day and any piece of mail they touched could have been tainted," he said.

Authorities believe Lundgren’s mail came in contact with an anthrax-tainted letter sent to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Her mail apparently passed through the same New Jersey sorting machine as the Leahy letter.

One other letter was tracked to the Seymour home of John Farkas, but tests found no anthrax spores there.

The Postal Service was able to track the letters by a high-speed optical character reader. The machine implants a bar code on a piece of mail and remembers in what sequence the mail went through the machine.

Postal Service spokesman Bob Cannon said the Postal Service is safe, as are the 700 million pieces of mail traveling through 40,000 post offices and 300 processing centers in the United States.

He said all machines are now cleaned using a new method. Instead of blowing dust and other particles off machines, the post office is using a new vacuum system.

In the meantime, the Postal Service is installing new irradiation equipment that will kill anthrax on the spot. Cannon said the Postal Service bought eight of the machines at $5 million apiece and that the machines will be installed in postal facilities around the Washington D.C., area.

"We couldn’t afford to put them everywhere and decided on Washington because if anyone was going to try this again, it probably would be in this area of the country," he said.