Experiments with lethal viruses and bacteria conducted at federal weapons labs lacked required oversight and controls, raising concern about potential risk to workers and the public, an Energy Department report finds.
The investigation by the department’s inspector general uncovered potential safety and health concerns involving a US$90 million annual program created to better prepare and develop countermeasures to possible attacks involving biological agents.
The activities, spread across eight federal research labs, have “lacked organization, coordination and direction,” the report made public Thursday found. It cited other shortcomings, including a lack of “appropriate federal oversight,” lax reporting and communications, and inconsistent policies and procedures when it came to handling biological materials.
The year-long investigation found no evidence of harm to an employee or the public. But the lax procedures raise “the potential for greater risk to workers and possibly others from exposure” to deadly biological agents, the report said.
The experiments involve handling some of the most lethal biological agents and materials known, including organisms that cause anthrax, the plague and botulism.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta controls the handling of these materials, including their shipment and the safeguards required at the facilities.
But Energy Department investigators found that some laboratories did not follow the CDC’s strict requirements for registering the biological materials.
Others did not properly screen biological agents received at the facilities, establish proper procedures for handling damaged packages, or inform Energy Department officials that experiments were being conducted.
At the Brookhaven lab in New York, botulinum toxin, which is fatal if inhaled or absorbed through the skin, was “routinely removed from its containment” in an area not approved by the CDC for work involving the material.
“As many as 30 individuals, some at work stations located only six to eight feet (two to three meters) away, could have been working on other projects (in the area) when the botulinum toxin was removed,” the report said. Investigators found no evidence of anyone being harmed during the experiment.
Officials at the Energy Department’s office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, did not know that biological experiments were being conducted at two of the labs, Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico, the report said. The biological activities at the labs “fell through the cracks,” one official told investigators.
Darwin Morgan, a spokesman for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Agency, said most of the deficiencies were “procedural” and that many have been corrected or are in the process of being fixed.
The investigation covered a period from July 1999 to this past January.