Despite the nation's deadly 2001 experience with anthrax in the mail, federal scientists have not agreed on a method to determine whether workplaces, postal facilities or other sites that might have been exposed are free of contamination, according to a congressional study.
The lack of certified anthrax sampling procedures means "there can be little confidence in negative results," the Government Accountability Office reported. Nor can U.S. environmental and health experts answer with confidence what GAO investigators called the basic question: "Is this building contaminated?"
Police tape blocks access to one of three buildings at a Pentagon mail-processing center in Baileys Crossroads last month.
(James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
The report is the latest in a series of government reviews that have questioned the effectiveness of the country's bioterrorism response plans.
The Washington area has experienced several false alarms prompted by new biological agent detection systems. They include last month's incident at two Pentagon-related mail facilities; a February 2004 report of the toxin ricin in a Senate office building; and a November 2003 alarm at a Navy mail processing center in Anacostia.
A separate draft report that examined the response by local governments to March 14 incidents at two Defense Department mail facilities concluded that uncertainty over testing "muddied the communications flow" and confused the public. During the incidents, defense officials shut down Pentagon mail delivery and placed 900 workers on preventive antibiotics. Authorities later blamed "quality control problems" at a contract testing laboratory for contaminating a key sample.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security, which requested the GAO study, said its findings expose a risk to homeland security.
"Every false positive brings multiple federal agencies stumbling to the scene with no real plan, and every false negative risks complacency in the face of a lethal threat," Shays said. "Without validated detection protocols, we risk terrorizing ourselves with false positives that put people on antibiotics needlessly and false negatives that breed a false sense of security."
In its report, the GAO recommends that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff coordinate anthrax response and testing.
Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed in a written response to the GAO that coordinated, improved testing methods are needed. But she noted that scientifically "validated" standards were not available in 2001.
Gerberding said developing a testing protocol that would cover "every possible scenario" is impractical given the technical challenges, time and cost involved. She said "scientific judgment and evaluation" should be relied upon instead.
A CDC representative will testify at a hearing today before Shay's panel, along with officials from Virginia, the defense department, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Postal Service, American Postal Workers Union and the Association of Public Health Laboratories.
The GAO report says that 23 of 286 facilities tested by federal agencies in 2001 returned positive results for anthrax bacteria.
But at two of the 23 facilities, test results were initially negative, and at one facility -- in Wallingford, Conn. -- it was not until the fourth testing that a positive hit was recorded.
The U.S. Postal Service reported in August that no further testing was warranted, and no additional postal workers have reported anthrax disease.
The GAO agreed that postal workers were at little risk but added, "We cannot rely on the argument that no one has become sick to answer the question of whether facilities are contaminated."
The Department of Homeland Security and EPA have been ordered by Congress to reach agreement by August on crisis management responsibilities, the report says.