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How safe are Hamilton's germ shipments?

In the wake of the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building, officials at Hamilton’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) installed fencing around the federal biomedical research facility, posted guards and installed security lights. Previously, the lab’s most noticeable precaution was a moat to keep disease-carrying ticks and fleas from escaping into Hamilton’s residential south-side neighborhood.

Heightened security has further pervaded virtually every function of the federal government since last year’s terror attacks, and the subsequent anthrax-by-mail attacks showed what can happen when pathogens fall into the wrong hands.

Yet while such facilities themselves may be more secure, few steps have been taken to better safeguard shipments of infectious research materials as they move among labs such as the one in quiet little Hamilton. That’s because existing procedures for handling these materials have worked for years without a single incident of theft or release, according to officials with the U.S. Postal Service and the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the Hamilton labs’ parent agency.

Pathogenic microbes crisscross the nation daily to research labs, much of it as registered mail. In theory, vials of viruses are handled almost no differ-ently than any other piece of registered mail, which travels in a separate mail stream and is never processed in mechanical sorting devices. The flow of pathogens is only going to increase thanks to the federal government’s billion-dollar investment in biomedical research to address emerging infections and bio-terrorism.

Meanwhile, a chorus of critics questions whether regulations for shipping pathogens are adequate for safeguarding them from theft, and for safeguarding the public from accidental releases.

“These materials have not been properly handled,” says Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University professor of biochemistry who sits on New Jersey’s advisory Pathogen Security Work Group. “Threat of diversion from a hijacked vehicle or a storage locker has to be considered very real.”

For the Hamilton lab, the question of transportation security will become all the more pressing in three years when NIAID completes a proposed $66.5 million expansion. RML’s new 100,000-square-foot wing will house a Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) lab, a maximum-containment facility designed to safely study the world’s most dangerous pathogens.

This expansion will presumably result in a marked increase in the amount and hazardousness of research materials rolling up and down the Bitterroot in postal and private carrier vehicles. However, the volume will remain small compared with what circulates out of Montana’s major hospitals, according to RML associate director Marshall Bloom. He said officials will not know which pathogens are to be handled by the lab expansion until the new building wins approval and research scientists are recruited to staff it.

Lab security and public safety are hot topics in the local debate over the lab expansion, which is the subject of an ongoing environmental review. “The mail issue has been brought up, but it’s glossed over, like a lot of other things,” said Hamilton activist Mary Wulff of the Coalition for a Safe Lab, a citizens group formed this year. “People aren’t overly concerned, but it’s biggie for me.”

While postal officials maintain that registered mail is safe, they decline to describe security procedures specific to pathogenic shipments.

“All registered mail goes through various tracking stations and is kept under lock and key,” says Jane Stefaniak, a Postal Service specialist in preparations and standards.

Unlike most mail, packages of infectious materials must bear the familiar biohazard symbol, but labeling can be problematic. “By labeling you reduce the risk of an accidental release, but it now makes it possible for people to steal the material,” Ebright said. “If you don’t label it, it might go through the same machines as the rest of the mail.”

Current rules require infectious substances to be triple packed, first in watertight vials, then in a box. A package may contain no more than 50 milliliters of liquid, and vials must be surrounded with enough material to absorb the liquid in case of a rupture. “This is something that has been going on for years and years,” Bloom said. “This is business as usual. In the mid-1990s thousands of Ebola samples were sent to [Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta].”

There is however no requirement that vehicles post signs indicating whether they are carrying a biohazard, in contrast with tanker trucks, which display number-coded placards identifying their contents. In the event of an accident, the lack of signage could pose a problem for public safety personnel.

“First responders will not know that the vehicle is carrying biohazard and pathogenic material,” Ebright said.

Biohazardous material accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of the nation’s mail stream and most of these deliveries are routine clinical specimens, officials say. According to Stefaniak, the most dangerous materials, those bound for BSL-4 labs, are usually delivered by private carriers under special contract. Currently there are three such labs operating in the United States, in or near the cities of Atlanta, San Antonio and Baltimore.

The new Level 4 lab in Hamilton, which would be the first such in the Northwest, will occupy only 7,000 square feet of the proposed wing. Germs that cause Q fever, Lyme disease and plague have already been handled without incident at RML, which was founded a century ago to research Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Hamilton postal carriers have been handling RML deliveries for years, again without mishap, says Hamilton Postmaster Marilyn Morris. “For something coming out of that lab, we’re going to be giving it the security it deserves.”

Still, Ebright contends the current system is fraught with weaknesses.

“We need much tighter tracking of this material. Currently, if something is lost, there is no rule to report it to anyone for 36 hours,” says Ebright, who suggests imposing protocols similar to those in use for the transport of nuclear materials.

Stricter rules may very well come into play as various government agencies begin to implement the Patriot Act and the 105 pages of fine print known as the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. Signed into law in June, this legislation requires, among many other things, the secretary of Health and Human Services to maintain a list of infectious agents that warrant special attention because of their potential use in acts of terror. HHS is also to maintain a registry of everyone with access to these agents.

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