The CDC, NIH, and FDA have mishandled hazardous materials, but they aren't alone.
It sounds like the setup to an apocalyptic movie about a pandemic. Live samples of the deadly smallpox virus were found in an unused storage room
at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. Also hidden away in that forgotten room were 12 boxes and 327 vials
filled with the viruses that cause dengue fever and influenza and the bacteria responsible for spotted fever.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced in June that an estimated 75 of its scientists had been inadvertently exposed to live anthrax bacteria
without proper safety equipment. Last week, the CDC revealed that staffers had mishandled dangerous materials
at least four times over the past decade, including transporting pathogens in Ziploc bags and sending a live sample of bird flu
to a low-security lab that was ill-equipped to receive it.
This isn't a cinematic setup. These all-too-real blunders are just the latest in a long history of dangerous mistakes made by those entrusted with extremely hazardous materials, from viruses to nuclear warheads
. No one was injured in any of these incidents. However, testifying before Congress last week, CDC Director Thomas Frieden admitted that his agency had "missed a critical pattern ... of an insufficient culture of safety."
Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists
' Global Security Program, says he isn't too surprised by the recent lapses.
"There is a level of complacency
that creeps in among people who are entrusted with very high value targets and materials," he says. "In the absence of acute threats, many people let their guard down. They get sloppy."