Share this article

print logo

Pentagon’s spreading anthrax scandal shakes confidence in safety procedures

How is it possible that the U.S. Army mistakenly shipped live anthrax to research laboratories around the world without knowing it? The military services are experts at systems and logistics – at least, they had better be – so there never should have been a chance that even a single shipment of live anthrax would make it out of the Army’s control.

Yet, it was a free-for-all. The scope of the problem has expanded every few days. The Defense Department on Monday upped the numbers again, and now says shipments went to up to 66 laboratories in 19 states, the District of Columbia and three countries – Australia, South Korea and Canada. The samples came from the Army laboratory at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Scientists there thought they had been shipping inactive strains of the potentially lethal spores. Worse, the problem may date back to at least 2008.

The problem began with the process to render the spores inactive. They were irradiated at the Utah facility and thought to be dead, but the process failed. Army Chief of Staff Raymond T. Odierno said he believed that human error was an unlikely cause of the problem, but that’s a false notion on its face.

Anthrax causes a serious bacterial infection that can be fatal, depending on the amount of exposure and how treatment begins. It is not contagious, but is spread through contact with the spores. Anthrax was most infamously used in terror attacks soon after 9/11. Letters laced with anthrax were mailed to news media offices and members of Congress. Five people died and more than a dozen others were infected.

There can be no possibility allowed for accidentally shipping live anthrax. Just as with good manufacturing processes, there needed to be quality control steps to ensure that what is evidently an unreliable procedure actually did the job. Plainly, that didn’t happen, and failure to institute a system of verification when dealing with deadly materials qualifies as inexcusable human error.

Other obvious questions arise:

• Who trained the individuals who irradiated the anthrax?

• Who supervised those carrying out the task?

• What systems were in place to ensure that proper protocols were carried out, and what were those protocols?

• Was the equipment used to irradiate the anthrax routinely subjected to examination? If elevators need to be inspected, anthrax-killing machines should need it, too.

About two dozen people in South Korea may have been exposed to the anthrax and are being treated. In this country, no one has become sick, although antibiotics were recommended as a precautionary measure for four people at laboratories in Texas, Wisconsin and Delaware.

Fortunately – almost incredibly – no one has died as a result of these anthrax shipments. Still, the possibilities of death and the further unauthorized spread of live spores qualify as gross negligence and a major embarrassment.

It’s not the first time a mistake by the military potentially endangered the public. At least as incomprehensible as the accidental spread of anthrax was the 2007 incident in which nuclear missiles, inadvertently armed with live warheads, were flown from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The missiles remained mounted for 36 hours, without any of the required security precautions required for nuclear weapons.

When two potentially catastrophic incidents occur in the space of eight years, it is fair to suspect that other critical protocols are at risk of failure, if they aren’t already failing. The nation’s new defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, needs not just to get to the bottom of the shipment of live anthrax around the world, but to find out if problems such as these are symptoms of a more systemic problem in other parts of the Army, Air Force and other services.