The Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) newspaper is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) worst nightmare because it continually runs in depth stories about why CDC is the worst nightmare for scientists concerned with laboratory safety. CDC is the agency supposedly ensuring the public’s safety from laboratories researching contagious disease causing organisms. They have their own research labs which they need for identification of unknown organisms or scientific work on agents of special importance. In the Bush years, this has often meant CDC has worked on biowarfare agents. One of those agents is Coxiella burnettii, the cause of Q fever. Q fever is a possible biowarfare agent because it causes a debilitating acute disease and is relatively easy to disperse through the air. To our knowledge it has never been used militarily but work on it goes back to before World War II.
In 2005 CDC completed construction of a new Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (“Building 18”) that has specialized high containment facilities for research on agents like Q fever. It is touted as one of the safest laboratories in the world. Let’s hope that’s not true, because in its short operational lifetime it has suffered a series of embarrassing and potentially dangerous mishaps, as the AJC has reported. The latest installment involves duct taping the door seals of a Q fever lab after it was discovered that air was flowing out of the lab into a corridor rather than into the lab as it was designed:
At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new $214 million infectious disease laboratory in Atlanta, scientists are conducting experiments on bioterror bacteria in a room with a containment door sealed with duct tape.
The tape was applied around the edges of the door a year ago after the building’s ventilation system malfunctioned and pulled potentially contaminated air out of the lab and into a “clean” hallway.
Nine CDC workers were tested in May 2007 for potential exposure to the Q fever bacteria being studied in the lab, CDC officials said this week in response to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The air-flow incident occurred very early in the morning, before the workday began. The blood tests were done out of an “abundance of caution,” CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said, and they showed that none of the workers who arrived after the incident were infected. (Alison Young, AJC)
The incident happened over a year ago but the duct tape is still there. Not to worry:
“It’s an enhancement,” said Patrick Stockton, CDC safety and occupational health manager, as he and four other agency officials took a reporter to see the door Wednesday. “We could take it off.”
“Enhancement” seems to be the new Bush administration all purpose word for explaining a screw up or misdeed, as in “enhanced interrogation” as a euphemism for torture. The tape is really unnecessary, CDC says, because the lab meets all applicable regulations. They don’t even need the duct tape. Unnecessary. Superfluous.
So does that mean this is a waste of money?
On Monday, designs were completed for a new self-sealing door to replace the one currently sealed with duct tape, said Ken Bowen, director of the CDC’s Facilities Maintenance and Engineering Office. Even though it’s not required, he said, the new door is being added “as a precaution.”
The construction to install the new door will begin sometime between November and next April, possibly sooner, depending on when there is a good stopping point in the experiments being conducted by the Q fever scientists.
Is it an enhancement or a precaution? Precautions are what they are supposed to be taking in the first place. The lab is perfectly safe, CDC says. They just want to make it even more perfectly safe? Perfectly safe, like this?
A year ago, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested under the Freedom of Information Act that the CDC release records about safety issues at the lab building, including last June’s power outage. So far the agency has not released any records.
On Dec. 18, the building was evacuated after its new medical waste incinerator was started for a test, then vented smoke into the high-containment lab area, according to internal CDC memos recently obtained by the AJC. Excessive heat caused the failure of the incinerator’s bypass stack, which tore away from its anchor bolts and fire caulk, the records show.
I’ve only pulled a few small sections from a long and detailed AJC investigation. Go and read it, unless you scare easily. Alison Young and her colleagues at the AJC continue to do a superb job watching the watchers. The CDC’s worst nightmare is making the CDC the worst nightmare for the rest of us.