D.C. POSTAL WORKERS QUESTION HANDLING OF ANTHRAX



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Last Updated

15 Oct 2002

Source:  Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2002.

THE NATION

One Year Later, D.C. Postal Workers Question Handling of Anthrax Crisis

A contaminated facility stayed open for six days after a deadly letter was found on Capitol Hill. Two employees died; others are still sick.

By Eddy Ramirez, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A year to the day after a deadly anthrax-laden letter was opened in the office of a U.S. senator, postal worker Terrell Worrell still wonders why authorities kept the Brentwood mail center open after work came to a complete halt on Capitol Hill.

For six days after a letter containing the deadly spores appeared in the office of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Worrell and at least 1,700 other employees kept working at the Brentwood facility, where the letter was processed. Within days, one mail handler tested positive for inhalation anthrax and officials shut down the plant. Two others died shortly after (cases 15 and 16).

The Brentwood center remains closed. Efforts to clean up the building continue, with hazardous materials teams on a cycle of "scrubbing" the facility with chlorine dioxide and then testing to see whether any spores remain. Environmental Protection Agency officials will review the results of the final test this week before a date is set for a full building fumigation.

Meanwhile, the sender of the Daschle letter is still at large. The investigation to find out who was behind the series of attacks, which killed five people, continues. An FBI spokesman declined to comment except to say that little progress has been made.

As for the postal workers, Worrell said, their bond is stronger, but so is their grief, fear and resentment. What happened at Brentwood transformed their lives, he said.

"I'm not the same man anymore," said Worrell, 39, a father of three who still complains of trouble breathing, headaches and fatigue -- all symptoms his doctors say are consistent with anthrax exposure. "A year after, here we are, still sick and nobody cares."

Most of the Brentwood workers are black, and some say they think of themselves as the forgotten victims not only of an elusive bioterrorist but of a "racist" experiment by the Centers for Disease Control to study the effects of anthrax on humans. CDC officials have repeatedly denied such allegations and say they acted quickly once they determined that postal workers needed treatment. The postal workers were treated the same as everyone else potentially exposed to the bacteria -- including lawmakers, their aides, journalists and others -- the officials have said.

Lawmakers such as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) have supported continued health monitoring of workers.

"I don't think people regarded their tragedy to any real lesser consequence," Norton said. "But these employees were put in a much worse position, because a year later we don't know where the letter came from, we still have very little experience with anthrax and their building has been left there, unused -- like a hulking monument for tragedy."

Recently, Norton won congressional support to rename the Brentwood center the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Processing and Distribution Center. The two postal workers died of inhalation anthrax: Morris (case 15), 55, on Oct. 21, and Curseen (case 16), 47, a day later. The men will be remembered at a vigil tonight outside the facility.

Dena Briscoe, a founding member of a support network of postal workers and family victims called Brentwood Exposed, said the two veteran postal workers could have been alive today had her superiors listened to workers complain of flu-like symptoms even before the anthrax-tainted letter arrived at Daschle's office.

Of 800 workers surveyed by Briscoe's group in March, at least 200 said they became ill, some as early as Oct. 12, when the Daschle letter passed through Brentwood. Moreover, most of the workers surveyed did not know safety protocols in dealing with hazardous materials, Briscoe said.

"We were all in the dark about anthrax," said Briscoe, who said she continues to have respiratory problems, diarrhea and fatigue. "We had no choice but to trust the Postal Service and the CDC. But they put profits and science before our safety."

Although a section of the Hart Senate Office Building was closed and congressional staffers were tested and given antibiotics within hours after an intern in Daschle's office opened the letter and released the powdery substance, the Brentwood crew was told to keep working. Health officials believed it unlikely that anthrax spores could have leaked from a sealed envelope.

"On the 15th we were victims," said James Harper, another Brentwood postal worker. "On the 16th we became test subjects. Why?"

Postal officials said they responded as best they could.

"What happened was a tragedy," said Kristin Krathwohl, spokeswoman for the Postal Service. "At the time, we were relying on health officials to advise us.... We had no intention to put workers at risk."

Krathwohl said the Postal Service has since enacted a litany of precautions to deal with the threat of hazardous materials. And Congress has authorized spending more than $700 million to install biohazard detection equipment at postal facilities nationwide. Aware that many workers fear going back to the facility, Krathwohl said they will have the option to request transfers or retire.

For Leroy Richmond (case 14), the only Brentwood survivor who tested positive for anthrax (RRF note: error since case 17 also survived inhalational anthrax), returning is not an option. Richmond, 57, said he has not regained his strength, not even to play ball with his 7-year-old son.

"I'm a citizen soldier wounded in this war on terror," he said, "and the powers that be don't even know I exist."