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Friday, October 05, 2007  
Improper Shipment of Anthrax in 2005 earned the Lawrence Livermore Nat

By: Jennifer Wadsworth
Published In: Tracy Press

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories was fined $450,000 for failure to properly prepare a package of anthrax shipped across the country in 2005.

The Department of Health and Human Services levied the fine against the laboratories on Sept. 24 for failure to comply with packaging laws, and for erroneous paperwork when they mailed vials of anthrax to bio labs in Virginia and Florida two years ago. Federal investigators publicly announced the fine Thursday at a Congressional hearing.

The fine was the biggest of the 11 issued since 2003 by the inspector general.

Vials of anthrax leaked inside the packages during their cross-country shipment, and government investigators found that an unauthorized employee packed the shipment from Lawrence Livermore?s Bio-Safety Level-3 lab, a lab that handles deadly pathogens.

The lab sent the first package to a biodefense lab in Palm Beach, Florida containing 1,025 anthrax-filled vials, the size of an index finger. Two of the vials arrived at the laboratory with their caps off, and the cap on another was loose.

The second package, containing upward of 3,000 vials of anthrax, which was sent a day later to the Virginia bio-lab, contained no uncapped vials, but the paperwork listed an incorrect number of vials in the package.

Both are errors punishable by federal fine.

Federal investigators used the lab?s anthrax incident as an example at Thursday?s hearing of how the government is struggling keep tabs on the burgeoning number of biodefense labs that handle lethal pathogens throughout the U.S. It was also said at the hearing that national defense labs fail to submit reports with enough detail about their experiments, often using vague, even evasive language.

In a March 2007 report submitted about the 2005 anthrax leak, Livermore Laboratories did not disclose that there was a leak at all, just that the pathogen was sent with deficient ?inner packaging.?

One of the anthrax shipments was ?inappropriately packaged and another shipment (had) incorrect paperwork,? admitted lab spokeswoman Susan Houghton in a statement Friday. ?But there was no leak outside of the package during shipment.?

Since 2000, the lab has shipped 30 packages of anthrax vials, and the two it was fined for were the only ones with reported deficiencies in packaging or documentation.

The lab responded quickly to the Sept. 2005 incident by suspending all lethal pathogen research for seven months, using the time to adequately train employees to avoid like accidents, Houghton added.

The employee responsible for the two mistakes quit and the local level-3 lab still tests anthrax to study exposure and treatment ?in case, for example, a terrorist were to release anthrax somewhere, we?d have the ability to test it,? Houghton said.

Houghton chalks up the faulty packing and paperwork to ?human error,? and said the lab takes the mistake very seriously.

?I think we certainly understand the need for the (Department of Health and Human Services) to respond in that manner,? she said. ?And our job is to make sure that doesn?t happen again.?

And while federal authorities have difficulties keeping a constant eye on the thousands of bio-labs nationwide, local watchdog group Tri-Valley Cares does its share of monitoring the Livermore lab.

?What happened with the anthrax is a major accident,? said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley Cares, the group that filed suit against the lab in 2001 for opening the Bio-Safety Level-3 research center that the nonprofit said posed a threat to the safety of residents in surrounding cities, like Tracy and Livermore.

?The laboratory has a history of accidents and spills and unintended releases, so I?m very, very worried about this,? Kelley said. ?They have a history of sloppy handling. There have been radioactive releases from the Livermore laboratories many times in the past, and now we?re finding that they?re responsible for an anthrax accident. This is no small thing.?

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