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Postal Service ignored contamination rules and cost workers their lives, put thousands at risk | (UPI) -- The U.S. Postal Service issued and then ignored its own guidelines directing postal locations that received suspicious letters to be shut down, an investigation by United Press International has learned.

The action endangered thousands of employees and possibly cost two people their lives during the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001, experts said.

Postal officials issued the policy to supervisors on Oct. 19, 2001, four days after an anthrax-laced letter was opened at the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

The guidelines, obtained by UPI, state that the discovery of a "suspicious unopened/sealed envelope" -- a description fitting the Daschle letter -- should trigger postal supervisors to shut down equipment, evacuate and cordon off the area.

Despite the policy -- and knowledge on Oct. 15 that the Daschle letter had passed through the Brentwood postal facility in Washington -- the facility was not shut down until Oct. 21, two days after the policy was issued.

The delay in shutting down Brentwood -- a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week mail processing facility -- increased the chances the more than 2,000 employees could be exposed to anthrax.

Two Brentwood employees died of inhalation anthrax, two others were hospitalized and the rest were put on antibiotics because of possible exposure.

In addition, both the USPS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta had anthrax policies in place years before the fatal attacks, which should have led them to suspect that Brentwood was contaminated much sooner than they did.

The CDC has maintained it left Brentwood open because it was confident the tiny anthrax spores could not pass through a sealed envelope.

Yet the agency's own precautions for mailing anthrax should have raised concern that the deadly agent had leaked out of the Daschle envelope and led authorities to close the facility down sooner to protect the employees, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, chairwoman of the Federation of American Scientists Working Group on Biological Weapons and a professor at the State University of New York at Purchase, told UPI.

Disease samples are often sent by mail among researchers so the federal government instituted regulations as long ago as 1980 that set standards for safe packaging. Such samples, including anthrax, must be mailed in three-layered packaging, consisting of sturdy, watertight containers to prevent the deadly agent from leaking out.

In 1995, the CDC's Office of Health and Safety issued its interpretation of the federal guidelines. In addition to advising researchers to use the three-layered packing system, it specifically advised against using envelopes.

"Most, if not all, bags, envelopes, and the like are not acceptable outer shipping containers," the CDC wrote at the time.

These regulations should have been an indication that an envelope -- even if taped and sealed as the Daschle letter was -- still probably would leak anthrax, Rosenberg said.

"The CDC had given some thought to the prospect anthrax could leak during mailing ... and certainly they knew (the Daschle letter) was not packaged according to prescription," Rosenberg said.

Asked why the mailing regulations did not suggest to the agency anthrax could leak out of the envelopes, CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant told UPI the agency's response "was based on the science that we knew at that time."

He added: "There was nothing to suggest that anthrax could be a threat as far as anyone coming into contact with a closed letter."

By the time the Daschle letter was opened, however, two mail handlers who touched but never opened anthrax letters in Florida had become ill.

"I don't think there was any question there was anthrax in the letters and it was getting around," Rosenberg said, and added for the CDC to say it did not know it could leak out of a sealed envelope is "not a good argument."

The postal service has maintained it did not shut down Brentwood because it was relying on the advice from the CDC. Its own guidelines, however, adopted in 2001 -- and a previous policy issued in 1999 -- called for evacuating facilities on the discovery of a suspicious letter.

This 1999 policy, also obtained by UPI, was developed after several anthrax hoax letters had passed through the postal system. It advises management "to minimize potential exposures through quick isolation and evacuation" and to "deal with potentially exposed employees."

Postal officials declined to comment on why the 1999 and the 2001 policies were not followed. Postal service spokeswoman Kristin Krathwohl initially told UPI she was unaware of the 2001 guidance and would look into it but did not return repeated phone calls or e-mail messages seeking further comment.

The postal service might have suspected anthrax contamination as early as Oct. 13.

On that date, Helen Lewis, 51, a clerk who worked in the government mail section, handled a letter that leaked a suspicious powder. She attempted to get treatment per the postal service policies for possible anthrax exposure but was denied that treatment by the Washington Hospital Center, she told UPI.

"They said they could not treat (for anthrax) because they did not want a panic," Lewis said.

This was the suspicious letter Thomas Morris Jr., a Brentwood employee who died from inhalation anthrax, referred to in his 911 call on Oct. 21. The postal service later said this letter tested negative for anthrax.

On Oct. 15, the day that the Daschle letter was opened, postal service officials ordered Lewis to go to a different facility -- Providence Hospital -- for treatment.

Lewis, along with her supervisor, received prescriptions for the antibiotic Cipro at that time, she said. Her post at Brentwood was less than 10 feet away from where Morris had worked. Four other employees who worked near the same area as Lewis and were having chest pains also went to Providence but were not given treatment for anthrax exposure.

Postal officials declined to comment on whether Lewis was taken for treatment.

"My question is, 'Why didn't they give the rest of my colleagues Cipro?'" Lewis said.

Capitol Hill workers received Cipro or other antibiotics for anthrax exposure on Oct. 16 but postal workers weren't treated until Oct. 21.

"How come my co-workers didn't receive the same thing?" Lewis said. "Why didn't they treat them on the 16th? Why didn't they treat them on the 17th? The 18th? The 19th? They could be living today if they received it."

Judicial Watch, an oversight group, recently obtained notes from a diary thought to be from a Brentwood supervisor. The notes indicate that the postal service knew -- not suspected -- that Brentwood was contaminated with anthrax by Oct. 18.

A diary entry dated Oct. 18 states the postal service arranged for a company called URS to test the facility for anthrax. The diary notes the test results came back positive on Oct. 18 and CDC officials were informed of this when they arrived on Oct. 19.

Krathwohl denied that postal officials knew the facility was contaminated on Oct. 18. She said postal officials were so confident the facility was safe, Postmaster General Potter held a news conference on the floor of Brentwood on Oct. 18 "to assure everyone."

However, the postal service suspected anthrax contamination on that date, if not before, because hazardous material specialists from the Fairfax County Fire Department in Virginia arrived on Oct. 18, at the request of postal officials, to test the facility for the deadly bacteria. Workers wearing protective suits to prevent infection tested Brentwood while the employees -- not protected in any way -- watched, Larry Powell, 53, a review clerk at Brentwood, told UPI. Fairfax officials confirmed this account to UPI.

More than a year after it was shut down, the Brentwood facility remains closed because of anthrax contamination. Final cleanup at Brentwood began last weekend.

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