Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years later.

As I write this entry I am listening to radio descriptions and reminders about the crisis that started in New York city on Tuesday September 11, 2001, and over the subsequent decade covered much of day-by-day activity around the world. 

What many have likely forgotten, exactly one week later the laboratory community  including medical, industrial, and research laboratories became caught up in the security tsunami when it was announced that anthrax spores were being found in a number of letters.  The US postal service was being used as a vehicle for a bioterrorism attack.
The events of the day were followed closely and concern.  Letters were posted in the United States to a number of politicians and media outlets.  Nineteen people became infected and 5 people died. Many speculated that the anthrax was part of the same terror process of the week previous.  Others suspected it was a home-grown event, perhaps inspired by, but independent from what else was going on  But as the days went by and the cases stopped, and a source was not identified, the focus of the media moved on  Eventually a person was named as a possible (and later probable) suspect, but reviews of the evidence pretty much refuted the official speculations.  In the minds of many that followed the events with interest, the perpetrator or perpetrators remain unknown. 
So did the anthrax attack have any lasting impact on the laboratory community?  Well try to walk into many laboratory facilities these days.  Security guards at all the entrance, and lots of electronic security locks.  Freezers that store microorganisms are more likely to be behind locked doors.  As to whether any of these procedures has made us safer is pretty unlikely.  All sorts of folks including students and staff and faculty still wander through the corridors and go into all sorts of places with all sorts of opportunity.  Someone bent on mischief and a modicum of imagination would be unstoppable.  But just as with airport security, we have gotten used to the added expenses and inconvenience, and I suspect that they will never go away.

Some think that the anthrax episode gave impetus to the laboratory quality movement, but that would be a huge overstatement.  The creation of ISO 15189 had begun 6 years previous, and the international Transport of Dangerous Goods stated some 10 years before that.   And the CLIA process in the United States started in the mid-1960s.  
There has been some activity about forming bioterrorism laboratory networks, and bioterrorism related quality assessment, but it would be fair to say that this has not remained front of mind. 

I will share a personal story.  About 8 years ago I started a process to get an exemption from TDG required packaging and labelling for transportation of Quality Assessment samples.  My argument was that our PT samples were so small in volume that they would represent nil risk to anyone.  I knew the events of 2001 were too fresh, but if we don’t start then no one ever has a chance to say “YES”.

 I was presenting my argument to a senior committee with little interest in supporting the proposal.   “If an airplane was to go down and someone was hit with a PT package there could be terrible consequences”.  My response was that if a plane went down between the jet fuel, the falling metal, and the falling bodies and all the released blood, tissues, body fluids, and body parts, my little package would be a pretty insignificant risk.  Indeed it would probably get incinerator from all the free jet fuel anyways.  
They were not impressed with the logic, and to date the answer to the request is still “NO”.

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