Hidden Risks Need More Attention
Law enforcement officers are normally aware that police work is a high-risk occupation that often involves physical contact in order to subdue violent suspects or prisoners. Now another, perhaps more subtle, risk to officers’ safety has been brought to attention. In addition to their potential for violence, a suspect or prisoner may well carry an unknown infection.
Once a subject is subdued, the danger is still not over. The infectious material may well contaminate booking stations, holding cells or the final point of incarceration. Police stations, jails and prisons may be contaminated by a host of unseen microbes on surfaces and spread throughout the facility by HVAC systems.
The situation is serious enough that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has published a 38-page manual of clinical practice guidelines dealing with only one of the many contaminants found in police stations, jails and other facilities.
Recognizing the severity of this hidden risk to officers, the LAPD recently issued an “officer safety bulletin” warning officers of the danger. The bulletin cited a detective who became infected and suspects it came from her station, which processes a large number of unsanitary suspects. The infection did enough bone damage that she is on strong intravenous antibiotics, will have the bones in her ankle fused and will be unable to walk without assistance.
Typical of the situation and underscoring the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ concern is a situation in a county jail in a southern state. Corrections officers have reported numerous cases of officers contracting an especially viral series of staph infections. Two officers inadvertently carried these infections home to family members, including a young child. Over a four-year period an estimated 200 prisoners and 15 officers were infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA.
Unfortunately, county and jail officials constantly denied that there was a problem despite a number of cases having been diagnosed and documented. Union officials, both local and at their headquarters, called on county officials to address the problem and protect the officers. When local officials shrugged off the problem, the union turned to the appropriate state agencies to step in. The state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (OSHA division) both inspected the jail and interviewed jail medical staff. Both agencies confirmed that there was a staph problem and provided guidelines on dealing with it. However, they have not yet addressed the problem of MRSA remaining in the building itself.
The experience isn’t unique, in fact it is repeated throughout the country and goes well beyond the concerns surrounding MRSA. Many police stations, sheriffs’ offices, jails and troopers’ barracks are located in older buildings, all vulnerable to contamination.
These old buildings often suffer from inadequate ventilation, leaky roofs and basements, as well as other structural defects that make them an ideal breeding ground for a variety of molds and fungi. Among the 100,000 species of mold and fungi, some may only make a person sick while others, which contain mycotoxins like MRSA that can kill.
Even modern construction doesn’t protect buildings from contamination by mold, bacteria and fungi. Most modern buildings have sealed windows and ventilation systems that mix outside air with recycled air. Any pollutants introduced by suspects or prisoners to systems that recycle air are essentially trapped inside where they can grow and spread.
In response, Environmental Air Science Corporation and Advanced Scientific Laboratories have teamed up to produce a DVD based training program for emergency response personnel to enable them to test their own facilities for contamination. EAS was formed by Harry Meyers, a PhD in engineering with 20 years of experience detecting contamination and directing remedial actions for them. Meyers described the problem, “Working in a contaminated building can be compared to walking on an ink pad; you will carry the mold, bacteria and fungus contamination with you everywhere you go including home to your family.”
Meyers added, “There is no one who is bulletproof from contamination. If your children are suffering from recurring sore throats, ear infections or allergy symptoms, it may be due to contamination carried home.” He also explained that because the immune systems of children are not fully developed and that elderly persons’ immune systems are declining, both are more susceptible to infections brought home from work.
Advanced Scientific Laboratories is a federally certified laboratory that has worked with EAS on numerous projects throughout the country. Their standard protocol is to provide an accurate analysis while maintaining a full chain of custody. Emergency response personnel trained under their system take samples throughout a building. Samples are transferred directly to where they are tested and analyzed. Once the report is completed, a detailed scientific analysis is also translated into laymen’s terms to ensure that all parties involved in the analysis, and where necessary, the report’s recipients are not misled or confused by technical terms.