"Stumbling to the scene with no real plan"

Nearly four years after the postal anthrax attacks, the U.S. still looks alarmingly exposed to bioterrorism.

Published April 6, 2005 7:48PM (EDT)

Disagreements between federal agencies are leaving the U.S. with inadequate bioterror response plans, the Washington Post reported Tuesday. A Government Accountability Office report found that in the nearly four years since postal anthrax attacks left five people dead, the government hasn't come up with a reliable test to determine whether a building is contaminated with anthrax.

The results of the government's existing testing mechanisms don't inspire a lot of confidence: The GAO's report revealed that 23 of 286 facilities evaluated by federal agencies after the anthrax-related deaths in 2001 tested positive for anthrax bacteria, and in two of those 23 facilities, the initial test results had come back negative. (At one Wallingford, Conn., facility, anthrax was not detected until the fourth round of tests.) Since then, new detective systems for biological agents have been developed, but are prone to false positives -- like the false alarms at two Defense Department mail facilities last month.

Part of the problem is that it's difficult to develop testing protocols that will detect all levels of toxins in all types of facilities. Still, government agencies aren't working together the way they should to meet the challenge: So far, the various departments involved -- from Homeland Security to the Environmental Protection Agency to the American Postal Workers Union -- haven't been able to agree on testing protocols. (The Pentagon, in particular, was criticized for dragging its feet in notifying the Homeland Security department of last month's mailroom scares.)

Congress has ordered the agencies to agree on crisis management responsibilities by August. Until then, says Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., Americans will remain at risk: Every false positive brings multiple federal agencies stumbling to the scene with no real plan, and every false negative risks complacency in the face of a lethal threat. Without validated detection protocols, we risk terrorizing ourselves with false positives that put people on antibiotics needlessly and false negatives that breed a false sense of security."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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