The Center for Domestic PreparednessFEMA
Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, in his final days heading the agency, provided answers to a congressional committee looking into how first responders unknowingly trained with toxic Ricin for years at Anniston's Center for Domestic Preparedness.
Fugate, with a one-page cover letter, provided 12 pages of answers for members of the Committee on Homeland Security. The letter, released today to the media, was dated Jan. 17.
The release constitutes the most comprehensive information about the Ricin mix-up yet disclosed.
In late December, the committee posed 12 questions to Fugate in a letter asking for more details on how the potentially lethal toxin was used and the agency's response once it found out about the mix-up.
The administration disclosed in November that almost 10,000 first responders were exposed to toxic Ricin at the center over a five-year period. An investigation is continuing into the situation, as all training has been suspended with chemical or biological agents.
The CDP trains emergency responders from across the nation in responding to chemical, radiological and biological events through the Department of Homeland Security. The training deals with natural disasters as well as possible acts of terrorism.
According to FEMA, the center began training with Ricin as early as 2011, and 9,648 students used the toxic form unknowingly during that time. No workers or trainees showed apparent effects or sickness over that period, the agency said.
Learning the truth
Fugate's answers state that the Center for Domestic Preparedness first learned the toxic form was being used on Nov. 8, 2016 through email communication between the center's biological lab staff and the Ricin vendor, which FEMA has not officially named.
In the process of placing a new order, the vendor identified the product previously sent to the center as being the toxic form of Ricin instead of the non-toxic form the center thought it had been purchasing. Further communication revealed all previous shipments had been the same toxic form. At no time did the center have more than 100 mgs of Ricin in its possession, the agency stated.
Ricin is an extremely toxic natural poison made from castor beans. It kills cells by preventing them from making proteins needed to survive. Effects from exposure typically show up within a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There have been no reported cases, among center workers or trainees, of Ricin poisoning.
According to FEMA's answers, the center superintendent later on Nov. 8, after learning of the mix-up, immediately suspended all use of biological materials, and began notifying senior FEMA administrators.
By Nov. 10, center officials began notifying current staff members and beginning the process of notifying former staffers. It also informed Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, along with Rep. Mike Rogers, on Nov. 15.
A review of employees did find two who "indicated they had seen a doctor in the past five years for respiratory health issues." They were instructed to meet with their attending physician to share any concerns.
Employees have also been offered to have their private medical history files reviewed by the center's contract physician for a medical opinion. No employee has taken advantage of this, the agency said. Senior staff had eight meetings with employees to provide information over November and December.
The answers also provide a detailed account of the safety procedures for staff and trainees at the center who used Ricin. Those activities was performed by center personnel while wearing safety equipment inside a biosafety cabinet. Officials have said students wore protective gear according to Level C protocols that "exceeded what would be required for working with Ricin." There was no skin exposure or inhaling hazard, the agency stated in its answers.
Instructors, training support staff and trainees were provided with undergarments, including socks, to replace personal items. They then wore chemically-protective jackets and trousers, boots and inner and outer gloves. "After being medically cleared they are then issued a full face air purifying respirator (rated for both chemical and biological hazards,) which is then... fit tested," the agency stated.
After, the garments were methodically removed after decontamination.
The word gets out
On Dec. 17, the agency sent an email to all 11,078 students who trained at the center from February 2012 to November 2016, informing them of the situation. It subsequently has initiated contacts with approximately 10 percent of students who could not be reached at those email addresses.
Administrators held a conference call with members of the House Homeland Security Committee on Dec. 13. In the FEMA statement, the agency apologized for not doing so earlier.
"We brought this issue to your attention following an internal assessment when we were confident that we could: 1) confirm that we had, in fact, received the more toxic ricin holotoxin; and 2) had a good enough understanding after our initial assessment to answer questions," it stated.