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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Florida Postal Service Worker Suffering After Contact with Chemical

Story first appeared in The Miami Herald.
A worker at the U.S. Postal Service’s Orlando sorting facility, smelled the noxious odor first. It was Feb. 4, 2011, and the foul stench was coming from one of the large mailbags hanging near the package-conveyor belts.

She ran over to the handler, the 44-year-old shift supervisor who was monitoring the sorting from a platform, and reported the smell. She told him that she couldn't breathe because of the smell.

The shift supervisor then headed toward the center of the sorting floor — an area workers call “the belly” — to investigate the odor.

Then he smelled it — a strong chemical stench he couldn’t identify. It was coming from a bag wet with a brown viscous substance. He looked in the wet sack and saw a broken package with tubes and wires sticking out. He remembers reading the return address with surprise: Yemen. Four months earlier, two bombs from Yemen had been sent through FedEx and UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service had alerted everyone to be on the lookout for packages coming from the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

Fearing the package was a hazard, he ordered the 40 postal employees out of the belly and immediately opened the large bay doors to ventilate the facility. He then moved the bag to a cart and pushed it outside to the hazardous-materials shed.

After the package was out of the building, the shift supervisor then radioed his manager to notify her of the suspicious spill. She told him the next on-duty supervisor would finish handling the incident.

His throat burned, and the gas had given him a headache. He called his mother in Rochester, N.Y. to inform her of what happened in case it was on the news. But the incident never made the news. In fact, the Postal Service did not investigate the suspicious package as a security or health threat and did not report it to the Department of Homeland Security, as is the protocol.

Workers' Compensation Insurance Quotes have risen drastically in the area as a result of this incident.

The package, now missing, has created a mystery — and solving that mystery could be the key to saving the shift supervisor's life. In the weeks after his exposure to the package, he fell devastatingly and inexplicably ill. He suffers from extreme fatigue, tremors, and liver and neurological problems consistent with toxic exposure. He has become so sick that he cannot work and now must be cared for his by mother in New York. Doctors say they have no way to treat him without knowing what chemicals were inside the package.

All the while, the Postal Service has refused to investigate, stating through lawyers that the incident never occurred. But the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley, uncovered related documents and interviewed two whistleblowers who confirm what happened on Feb. 4, 2011 — showing that the Postal Service has refused to investigate not only the potential cause for the illness of an employee, but also what could have been a chemical weapon in Florida.

Today, the ill shift supervisor lives with his mother in Rochester, N.Y. In a bedroom painted blue, with lights off and curtains drawn, He sleeps up to 16 hours a day in a hospital bed. Within two weeks of the Feb. 4, 2011, incident, he had came down with flu symptoms. He also had insomnia and was disoriented.

By June 2011, the symptoms intensified. He had lost 25 pounds from his trim frame. His liver and appendix were inflamed. He wound up in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer and esophagus. The next month, he sat in the dark in his home in Lady Lake, Fla., unable to get out of his recliner and spend time with the two teenagers under his care: his own 17-year-old son and the son of a friend under his guardianship.

In his decade of working for the Postal Service, he had rarely missed a day on the job. But by August 2011, he began what’s become a permanent medical leave.

The next month, his gallbladder was removed in an attempt to give him relief from his nausea and stomach pain. Days after the procedure, his symptoms returned. Doctors couldn’t explain why. By the end of September, the ill man's mother realized her son could not take care of himself anymore, and she took him to New York.

His mother now works in a home office next to Lill’s bedroom, constantly listening in case he is stricken with tremors.

The exposure to the suspicious package appears to be the only answer left to his unexplainable health problems. He has seen more than two dozen doctors, including toxicologists and neurologists, and none has been able to diagnose his illness.

But to this day, the Postal Service denies that he was exposed to a potentially toxic package from Yemen.

In a March 9 letter, a Postal Service lawyer acknowledged that a harmless spill had occurred on Feb. 2, 2011, but said nothing was spilled on Feb. 4, 2011. A review of Postal Service records and multiple inquiries at both the Area and District levels has confirmed — as previously indicated — that there was no hazardous spill on February 4, 2011 at the Orlando MP Annex.

After her shift at the Postal Service facility in Orlando on an April evening, a woman sat on a couch in a hotel room on International Drive. Next to her was a coworker. At the risk of losing their jobs, the women said the Postal Service is lying and covering up the incident. They were there when the shift supervisor removed the noxious package from Yemen.

In interviews with FCIR, the two women confirmed in detail their shift supervisor's recounting of what occurred in Orlando on Feb. 4, 2011. FCIR also obtained a time-stamped email he had sent to his supervisor, reporting the exposure to a potentially toxic substance that day.

Why, despite paper records and two whistleblowers’ accounts, the Postal Service refuses to investigate the incident is something of a mystery. But it’s also a national security concern, demonstrating how the Postal Service may not have investigated a potential terrorist attack in Florida.

In October 2010, four months before he came in contact with the package, authorities intercepted two packages from Yemen with bomb materials hidden inside printer ink cartridges. One was discovered in Britain aboard a UPS cargo plane and the other was found in a FedEx warehouse in Dubai. The Postal Service briefly stopped accepting mail from the country. Yemeni police then arrested a suspect in the case, and deliveries from Yemen to the United States resumed.

But the Postal Service’s being on the front lines of counter-terrorism is nothing new. Since the 2001 anthrax attacks — during which anthrax-laced letters were mailed to news media and two U.S. senators, killing five and infecting 17 others — the Postal Service has been on alert for the next attack.

That’s why a U.S. Rep., wants answers about what happened in Orlando. Her district includes the ill employee's new residence in Rochester, has pressured the Postal Service to investigate what she views as a credible report of a possible chemical weapon.

Postal Service officials in Washington, D.C., and Florida declined to comment on Buerkle’s call for an inquiry and on the two whistleblowers who have come forward.

When the ill shift supervisor is awake and lucid, he expresses frustration that his employer won’t acknowledge the incident that may have made him so ill.

Squeezing his eyes shut, his hand trembling, he admitted he didn’t follow protocol for handling a spill. Rushing to protect fellow employees, he did not follow the Postal Service rules that required him to put on a protective suit before handling the parcel. Because of that, liquid from the package touched his skin. It was brown, syrupy and difficult to wash off. he wanted to make sure that the other employees got out, and feels that if he had followed the rules more people would have been exposed to the chemical.

He has good and bad days. During the bad ones, he struggles to distinguish reality from dream.

Doctors say his symptoms are consistent with exposure to a neurotoxin. To identify which neurotoxin, they need the Postal Service to acknowledge the incident, determine whether the package is in the Postal Service’s possession or was transferred from the hazmat shed to a third-party contractor’s landfill in Kentucky, and then test its contents.

He’s hopeful that if they can find the package, he could be well again.

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