June 13, 2012 -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency charged with preventing the spread of infectious diseases has come under attack today for "serious" airflow problems in an Atlanta building that houses anthrax, SARS and monkeypox.
Documents and emails obtained by USA Today suggest that a poorly engineered airflow system in the CDC's Building 18 could expose unprotected staff and visitors to dangerous airborne pathogens.
"As the door closed a very noticeable puff of air could be felt coming through the slit in the window out into the 'clean' corridor," CDC safety inspector Eddie Jackson wrote in a Feb. 16 email to a top safety official after feeling air flow out of a potentially contaminated lab and into a communal hallway. "Don't know whether this was a fluke or the norm, and the reason I'm commenting is one of the visitors seemed concerned and has been talking about it since we've come back."
The documents suggest a breach in biosafety regulations, imposed nationwide by the CDC itself, that dictate labs housing the most dangerous inhalable infectious agents must be maintained under "negative pressure."
"This means that the pressure inside the room is less than the pressure outside the room, so that all air will flow in; none will flow out," said ABC News' chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser.
Besser, who is the former head of the CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response, said airflow systems serve as a final safeguard, keeping dangerous germs confined to labs where workers are properly protected by gear that may include gloves, laboratory clothing and respirators.
No one was infected during the Feb. 16 incident, USA Today reported. But the scare is the latest in a string of safety problems plaguing Building 18, the agency's seven-year-old, $214 million Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory.
In 2007, backup generators failed to keep airflow systems working during a power outage. And in 2008, the door to a lab housing Coxiella Burnetii was found to be sealed with duct tape after a ventilation system malfunction. Nine workers were tested for the bacterium, which causes Q fever, but none were infected.
"This is yet another incident that calls into question the CDC's self-inspection policy," Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., told Congress at the time, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I highly doubt that the CDC would accept duct-taped doors on the privately owned bio labs it inspects."
Besser agreed the airflow problem, and the apparent failure of CDC officials to respond quickly and effectively to staff concerns, highlights the problem of self-inspection.
"Laboratory safety is not an area where you want to have this much self-policing," he said. "There is clearly an appearance of conflict of interest in having the inspection program at CDC given the number of laboratories housed within the agency."
In an April 9 email to top CDC officials, including director Thomas Frieden, Kismet Scarborough, a high-containment lab manager for the CDC's Animal Resources Branch, wrote the CDC "will do anything … to hide the fact that we have serious problems with the airflow and containment in this whole building," USA Today reported.
Minutes from a February 2010 meeting suggest the agency knew it would fail its own inspection.
"Bottom line is we can't continue to operate the building the way it is," said CDC safety manager William Howard, according to minutes obtained by USA Today. "If (a lab inspector) finds out air is moving this direction they will shut this place down."
The CDC did not immediately respond to ABC News requests for comment.