Local News

Raleigh Postal Workers Worry About Anthrax After Trace Found In Local Facility

Posted November 16, 2001

— Health officials say the trace amount of anthrax found in an isolated part of a Raleigh postal facility poses no threat to the general public, but postal workers there are still concerned.

Two tests on the postal service's Westgate distribution center came back negative for anthrax, but a final test by the Centers For Disease Control did reveal a small amount of the bacteria in three shrink-wrapped pallets of stamps.

"It came out with a trace amount of anthrax," said Bill Brown, postal service spokesman. "It was an extremely small amount in a very isolated area."

The contaminated pallets were located in a part of the plant that is not open to the public. They came from the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C, where four postal employees inhaled anthrax weeks ago, and two died.

The swab containing the anthrax spores was wiped across the three pallets. The pallets are being tested individually to determine which one had the spores on it. Then, the plastic wrap will be opened on the positive one to test stamps inside it, said Dr. Leah Devlin, the state health director.

Officials have not yet determined what to do with the stamps in the contaminated packing.

About 9 people work in the area where the spores were found, and Governor Mike Easley said all of the workers who came in contact with the pallet are healthy.

The United States Postal Service said those employees were monitored and none showed signs or symptoms of anthrax-related illnesses.

Employees were offered counseling, but the nine people who worked in the room were not tested or offered antibiotics because they did not have anthrax symptoms and the sample was too small to infect anyone, Devlin said.

She said there was not a large enough sample of spores to infect anyone if they got it into their nose or mouth.

In addition, employees were told that if anyone missed work because of the anthrax, their absence would be written up as an incident, which is an unexcused absence.

Some postal workers were not comfortable with the assurances they were offered.

"Our issue is our health," said postal worker Jerry Clements. "Our families are concerned because this thing can be spread; it can be airborne."

Devlin said the amount of anthrax found at the facility is "medically insignificant."

"This is part of an environmental study of how anthrax might move through a mail distribution system," said Devlin.

The anthrax spores were discovered following precautionary tests of 275 postal facilities nationwide last week.

Mail centers in Raleigh and Charlotte were tested as part of that process. Forty-two sites in the Westgate processing and handling plant were tested, and late Thursday night, the

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

in Atlanta told state officials that one of those areas tested positive for trace amounts of anthrax.

Tests on the Charlotte center came back negative.

According to the governor's office, results are back from 208 of the 275 facilities tested nationwide; 188 of the facilities tested negative and 20 tested positive, including Raleigh's Westgate facility.

The Westgate facility has a retail counter and rental mail boxes and houses a 400,000-square-foot distribution center where mail is sorted and sent to smaller post offices.

Employees working overnight were briefed by supervisors and doctors from the health department when the results were revealed. Despite hearing that the amount of anthrax found was so small, they were concerned that the building was not evacuated.

"There's a probability that I won't be coming to work tomorrow, I need to talk it over with my fiancé. I feel that the post office does not care about me. I have to take it into my own hands to care about myself," said employee Faye Kennedy.

Brown said that the amount was so small that an evacuation was not necessary.

"We want to make sure everyone is safe, that everyone is informed, and we want to make sure that everyone continues to do their jobs, also," he said.

The local postal union president disagreed with the decision not to evacuate the building. The U.S. Postal Workers Union wants all 400,000 square feet of the facility decontaminated before the workers return.

"The questions basically revolve around whether or not the building should be closed or evacuated until such time that it is decontaminated. That's what the employees want, that's the union's position, and management is not listening to us at this point and time," said Ajamu Dinnahunt, president of APU Local 1078.

Decontamination is under way at the center. They only plan to decontaminate the area where the trace amount of anthrax was found.

A decontamination team from Washington, D.C. arrived at the facility around 4:30 a.m. Friday. At that time, it was found that the contaminated area was larger than first anticipated. As a result, it could take until Saturday night before the area is cleaned. The team will likely sample it again to make sure it remains clean.

Raleigh's only other brush with anthrax came in October, when the

Century Postal Station was evacuated

after a worker there found a suspicious substance that turned out to be some type of ground dirt.


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