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Sunday, October 07, 2007  
Lab fined $450,000 for mishandling anthrax

By: Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer
Published In: San Franciso Chronicle

A former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist who lacked proper credentials sent off an uninspected package containing two open vials of deadly pathogen anthrax across the country in 2005, triggering a $450,000 federal fine against the lab, authorities say.

The scientist, who resigned her post at the Livermore lab after the incident, left the twist caps off two containers and a loose cap on a third vial in a 1,025-vial shipment to Palm Beach, Fla., in September 2005, according to the findings of a federal agency's review that led to the fine.

The lab in Florida then opened the anthrax shipment without proper precautions, and two of its workers were possibly exposed. The workers were treated with the antibiotic Cipro for a week, then returned to work.

A second shipment of about 3,000 vials made the next day by the same Lawrence Livermore scientist to a lab in Virginia had more vials than it should have, a separate violation of packaging restrictions. The scientist's official credentials vouching for her ability to ship the pathogen had lapsed at the time of the shipments.

The fine was levied against the University of California - the former manager of the lab - as part of a recently reached negotiated settlement that became public at a congressional hearing about the safety of the government's pathogen research programs. A key finding was that lab officials failed to inspect the shipments to ensure they were properly packaged and that labeling accurately reflected the contents.

Lab spokeswoman Susan Houghton said no anthrax leaked from the vials in the Florida shipment, and that the inner packaging would have trapped any anthrax if it had.

However, the government summary of the incident concluded: "During the transfers, anthrax was released from the shipped vials."

Houghton said the lab has made a total of 30 shipments in the last six years without other incident. She noted that the 2005 case led to a seven-month shutdown of all the lab's anthrax-related research for an audit, reorganization and retraining. In April 2006, the lab earned a three-year renewal of its registration to handle biological agents.

A citizen group, Tri-Valley CAREs, seized on the incident as an example of the danger to the community posed by the lab, as well as a new lab that has yet to open.

Marylia Kelley, the head of the group and who lives across from the lab, said lab officials "deliberately withheld important information" and lied about the magnitude of the incident, which was originally described as an inner packaging problem of an unnamed biological agent. It never mentioned anthrax.

"We now know that was a deception," Kelley said in a statement. "The lab disclosed only one aspect of a major accident involving multiple violations of law and regulation and resulting in the release of a dangerous pathogen."

Houghton said that with the renewal of its registration, the lab has a new oversight system, training and procedures. She said the federal Department of Transportation concluded the problem shipments amounted to "an isolated incident."

"The registration allows our laboratory to continue necessary research on behalf of the nation," the lab said in a statement.

E-mail Jaxon Van Derbeken at

This article appeared on page B - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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