WASHINGTON -- Government investigators found widespread potential for bioterrorism mischief at many college laboratories funded by the Agriculture Department, including an unlocked freezer supervised only by a college lecturer and containing a biological agent for a plague more severe than the Black Death.
"Officials we spoke with about this situation believed there was a strong possibility that similar conditions existed at a number of other institutions," the department's inspector general's office said in a report.
One lab, outfitted for a researcher working with some of the most high-risk biological agents, was found in a building 30 yards from the football stadium and open for bathroom use during night games. Many people have keys, but sometimes doors remain unlocked.
The inspector general's office, after inspecting 104 labs at 10 universities and a private institution during the summer of 2002, urged the White House and the Homeland Security Department to look at the dangers and issue one set of standards governing security of hazardous materials. The report did not identify the labs. The chief finding: Many of the labs don't keep track of their biological, chemical, and radioactive materials -- and those that do rarely are accurate.
Only two institutions had a centralized database for a summary-level inventory of biological agents or chemicals at their labs. Just five had formal procedures for reporting missing pathogens.
Buildings housing the labs commonly lacked alarm systems, surveillance cameras, keycard devices, and sign-in sheets or the use of ID badges.
Doors were not always locked, locks were left unchanged even after keys were lost or stolen, and cleaning staff in many cases had access to the labs after hours when no one was around.
In one case, inspectors found an unlocked freezer containing seven vials of Yersinia pestis, considered one of the highest-risk materials, which had been stored since 1981. It causes bubonic plague, or Black Death, and pneumonic plague, an airborne pathogen even more severe that infects the lungs and is almost 100 percent fatal within 48 hours of symptoms.