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Was anthrax to blame for mail deaths?

Eight Brentwood postal workers have died since the anthrax scare. Some say that's very suspicious.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002


Eight Brentwood postal workers have died since the anthrax scare. Some say that's very suspicious.

WASHINGTON -- Johnny Cheek was 55. A regular on the basketball court, he dropped dead Dec. 26 playing hoops with friends.

An autopsy blamed heart disease. But his widow, Vicki Cheek, can't rule out something else.

Johnny Cheek, a U.S. Postal Inspection Service officer, was assigned to the capital's Brentwood mail facility. Vicki says the cause could be anthrax, or maybe complications from the antibiotics her husband took to prevent infection after last fall's bioterrorism attacks.

"He complained of aching, especially around his rib cage. He would complain all the time," Vicki Cheek said. "His doctor said he didn't have a heart condition. But he would say, "I feel so full,' like bloated, all around."

Since last fall's anthrax attacks killed two workers at the Brentwood facility, Cheek and seven other Brentwood workers have died. Health authorities have attributed the deaths to heart disease, cancer and stroke, with one death unexplained.

But Brentwood workers and their families are suspicious of official explanations, given the tardy government response to threats to their health after an anthrax-filled letter arrived Oct. 15 at Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office.

Antibiotics to prevent infection were quickly distributed to the predominantly white congressional staffers in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. The offices were immediately cleared.

But it was not until a week later, after Brentwood employees Thomas L. Morris, 55, and Joseph P. Curseen, 47, died of inhalation anthrax that anyone thought about the danger to the mostly black workers processing letters through the city's main mail sorting facility.

Now, many Brentwood workers are complaining of chest pain, shortness of breath, chronic fatigue, sore throats, diarrhea and other maladies, said Dena Briscoe, a postal worker active in Brentwood Exposed, a nonprofit organization formed to help workers cope.

She questions whether authorities are looking aggressively enough for a link to anthrax. "There are a lot of problems employees are having that are not being addressed," she said.

In some cases, anxiety may be the culprit. Experts say it can make a person more susceptible to illness by weakening the immune system.

It would not be surprising, then, if Brentwood workers turn up with more colds and allergies, said Walter Penk, chief of psychology at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Mass.

"There is no question in my mind that if a stressor like anthrax is introduced into the workplace it will cause reactions," both psychological and physiological, he said.

But the physician treating a worker at Brentwood hospitalized with an unidentified respiratory illness said there are enough perplexing and unexplained health problems that a link to anthrax cannot be dismissed.

Dr. Tyler Cymet's patient, William R. Paliscak of Edgewater, Md., is a 38-year-old postal inspector. On Oct. 19 -- four days after the anthrax letter arrived at Daschle's office -- Paliscak began searching the Brentwood facility for clues to the bioterrorist attack.

He worked in the building until Oct. 22. He stuck his head into what is known as machine 17, later believed to have processed the bacteria-filled letter.

Because it had not dawned on the CDC that anthrax spores were in the facility, Paliscak had only a mask purchased from Home Depot to protect him, Cymet said. He loaned the mask to a co-worker who had none, Cymet said. When dust blew up from the machine into his face, he was completely exposed.

Paliscak began taking antibiotics when the contamination was discovered. He skipped two doses and fell ill. He has suffered fluid in his lungs, high fever and severe shortness of breath -- all symptoms that could indicate anthrax, or other diseases.

Paliscak's blood has tested negative for the anthrax bacteria, Cymet said. His blood oxygen levels are dangerously low.

Cymet said it's possible a partial antibiotic treatment eliminated markers of the infection in Paliscak's blood but left behind undetected toxin. Cymet is an osteopathic physician and head of family practice at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

"I absolutely feel this has something to do with the anthrax," Cymet said.

Paliscak's family is angry with how the government has handled his case but doesn't share the suspicion others have that race is a factor. Paliscak is white.

Postal Service spokesman Jon Leonard said of Paliscak: "We'd love to know what's going on with him. The problem here is there have been some conclusions he has anthrax, and there is no medical evidence that he does."

Trying to help his patient, Cymet and his partner, Dr. Gary Kerkvliet, have begun collecting their own data about Brentwood deaths.

Cymet is intrigued by the possibility Brentwood workers are reporting health problems that staffers in the Hart building aren't because only about half of postal employees took a full 60-day course of the prescribed antibiotic.

About 94 percent of people exposed on Capitol Hill stuck with the drugs to the end, a CDC scientist told the Washington Post.

Unpleasant side effects that can be caused by the two main antibiotics prescribed to combat anthrax infection, Cipro and doxycycline, include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and joint pain.

Aubrey Corbin Jr., a 36-year Brentwood employee, took the prescribed 60-day course of medicine. He collapsed at home in Cheverly, Md., and died May 13.

His sister, Linda C. Corbin of Richmond, Va., says he was 58, a husband, father and avid jogger who worked out at the gym. He worked a midnight to 8 a.m. shift near machine 17, the one that may have infected Paliscak.

In the weeks before his death, Corbin felt weak and lost about 60 pounds. His sister said he coughed up blood shortly before he collapsed.

Linda Corbin, 45, said Maryland health authorities originally said her brother died of a heart attack but called back to say they were no longer certain and would run more tests.

Citing privacy concerns, the CDC and postal officials will not release the names of the eight Brentwood workers who have died since the anthrax attacks, though some have been named in news reports.

CDC spokeswoman Karen Hunter said death certificates show two died of heart disease, two of cancer and one of stroke. One death -- apparently Aubrey Corbin Jr.'s -- is unexplained.

Anthrax symptoms usually show up about seven days after exposure to the bacteria. Doctors at the CDC have said spores can cause infection in people as long as 45 days after exposure.

About 1,600 people work at Brentwood. Eight deaths over eight months for that size population is within statistical norms, Hunter said.

The Brentwood building, shuttered since October, will be fumigated in a few weeks with chlorine dioxide gas. It is expected to reopen by the end of the year.

Postal officials held a town hall meeting June 27 to explain the cleanup to residents of the neighborhood, also known as Brentwood.

Thomas Day, the Postal Service's vice president of engineering, said Brentwood would be cleaned by "the same process that was used in the Hart Senate Office Building. Let me emphasize that. The same process."

Brentwood-area resident Earline Frazier, conspicuous in a bright yellow shirt, repeatedly waved her hand at Day during his prepared program.

When he finally called on her, Frazier noted the Hart building is "predominantly white" and Brentwood is in a "predominantly black" neighborhood.

"I want you guys to jump off your butts and give us the same treatment," Frazier said to murmurs of approval from the audience of about 65.

"I'm trying to get some kind of life," said Vicki Cheek, who works at the Postal Service's downtown Washington headquarters.

Dr. John Dormois, a cardiologist at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, said it is not unusual for an active, seemingly healthy person like Johnny Cheek to die suddenly.

"There are literally millions of people walking around every day who have undiagnosed, silent heart disease," Dormois said. "Thousands of them drop dead every day, and there was never a symptom that brought them to medical attention."

Ruptured plaque or a blood clot that blocks an artery can cause sudden death, Dormois said. He said Cheek's complaints of feeling bloated are not usually symptoms of heart disease.

CDC epidemiologists are conducting a followup study of the Brentwood workers and have not ruled out a link to anthrax in the reported health problems.

Linda Corbin cannot shake the feeling that authorities are not telling her all they know.

On Oct. 23, she said, her brother showed up at D.C. General Hospital to wait in line with hundreds of other postal workers for antibiotics.

He processed registered mail near machine 17. When a health worker called out for anyone who worked in that area to raise a hand, her brother did.

"Then they took him straight into an office, explained what the Cipro was, and how to take it," she said. "They rushed him right through when they learned where he worked."

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