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The risk of anthrax exposure to postal workers at the Morgan General Mail Facility in New York City and other mail centers is almost negligible, an expert for the federal government said Tuesday. Testifying in a lawsuit that was filed to force changes in the way the U.S. Postal Service handles the threat posed by the bacteria, Dr. Stephen Ostroff said authorities do not believe the health and safety of mail sorters at the facility is in danger. Ostroff, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, said investigators “fully anticipated” finding traces of anthrax when they tested sorting machines at the facility last month, but that the traces were not “in sufficient amounts to continue to pose an ongoing public health risk.” The doctor’s testimony came in the first day of a hearing before Southern District of New York Senior Judge John F. Keenan, who is weighing whether to grant a preliminary injunction sought by the New York Metro Area Postal Union. The union argues that the Postal Service responded inadequately to the threat of postal worker contamination following revelations that anthrax-laced letters were mailed to media outlets in New York City — letters the union claims were almost certainly processed through the Morgan facility. The union also alleges that the procedures employed at the Morgan facility violate an agreement between the Postal Service and the national postal workers’ union. Under that agreement, any positive test for anthrax in a mail facility should trigger an immediate cessation of operations, evacuation of the building and the safe removal of all bacteria from the site. The suit, brought under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, claims that the Postal Service is contributing to the handling, storage and transportation of hazardous waste. Tuesday, Union President William Smith said the Postal Service “lied” to workers at the Morgan facility, and that workers had little faith in the representations on plant safety made by the CDC. Union attorney Louie Nikolaidis, of Lewis, Greenwald, Clifton & Nikolaidis, also questioned other postal workers from the facility, which houses 40 sorting machines that each process 400,000 letters a day. Dennis O’Neil, a 17-year veteran of the Postal Service, described how “letters get torn, letters get broken,” in the machines. O’Neil also detailed how he filled out forms on Oct. 15 reporting a hazard, unsafe condition or practice at the facility. The forms, he said, were meant to alert supervisors about the potential spread of anthrax spores by the use of compressed air blowers to clean out machines, vacuum cleaners that expel dust into the air, and dust mops that are shaken out. “They (the supervisors) indicated to me they didn’t think it was a problem,” he said, adding that “very few” workers used gloves and masks made available to them following a “safety talk” by supervisors. TIMING IS KEY In all, six machines tested positive for anthrax. But Ostroff, under examination by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Daniel S. Alter and Sheila M. Gowan, said that timing was key in his determination that the level of risk was extremely low. The first group of people who tested positive for cutaneous or “skin” anthrax were believed to be infected from a series of letters postmarked in Trenton, N.J., on Sept. 18, including one to NBC and a second letter that sat unopened at the New York Post for several days. Based on the distance of time between the postmarking of those letters and the reported cases of cutaneous anthrax, Ostroff said he expected that the “peak period of risk” would have been in the first two weeks following Sept. 18, and that the risk would decline rapidly after that point. Instead, he said, no postal workers at the Morgan facility contacted cutaneous anthrax. Ostroff added that postal workers were given antibiotics merely to “drop” the risk level to “zero.” “Everything we have done subsequent to that has been to take a safe working environment and make it even safer for postal workers,” he said. The hearing is expected to continue this morning, with Nikolaidis presenting his own experts to counter the opinions of Ostroff.

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