Lexington KY- In March of last year, New York City paramedic Deborah Reeve died of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related form of cancer. There is little doubt she was first exposed to asbestos on Sept. 11, 2001, when she responded to the scene at Ground Zero.
There is equally little doubt that she continued to be assaulted by the substance sometime during the next eight months when she was assigned to the morgue, where she helped medical examiners do body-part identification.
Dr. Emily Craig, Kentucky's forensic anthropologist, had already given a lot of thought to the problem of contaminated corpses before the World Trade Center was attacked. But she stood endless days in the same morgue as Deborah Reeve. She breathed the same air while combing bags of rubble for slivers of bones so that DNA could name what remained.
Nothing was done to protect the examiners, short of latex gloves and masks.
Now, Craig thinks she's close to finding a way to better protect medical examiners working in conditions like that.
Two years after the Sept. 11 attack, in November 2003, Craig filed for a United States patent for a new kind of body bag that would, at least, be a start on some protection for the responder.
Craig's containment unit is designed to be transparent and has pockets with interior gloves so that medical examiners can manipulate the body or the parts to their satisfaction. The idea, in practice, would be to isolate the body as quickly as possible, to contain whatever contaminants it carries inside the bag.
"It's like a giant Ziploc bag," she says, with hand ports.
The problem, says Craig, is that the uses of such a containment system are obvious but only after the fact.
"Say someone found a body in the street with boils on it, they'd pick it up, transport it to the hospital and then to the morgue. Then we discover it's smallpox. It's already out there spreading to the hospital and to anyone who works in the morgue or the lab or funeral homes."
The public needs to protect the responders, Craig says, and that means thinking beyond heavy firefighting gear and flak jackets. And while forensic specialists can be exposed to bodies that might spread hepatitis, tuberculosis or HIV, the threat of bioterrorism and chemical weapon dissemination only exacerbates the need for more protection.
On June 12, U.S. Patent 7228603 was issued to Craig's home-based business, Bluegrass Bio. Inc., for the containment system she has designed. The prototype has yet to be produced.
"I can imagine several potential scenarios where this (invention) would be essential," says Dr. Joseph Prahlow, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. "None of which I would like to see come to pass."
Prahlow says that forensic workers must contend with contamination concerns from bodily fluids that could spread HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis, "but this would be a very welcome tool to have available when you get into the realm of biological and chemical warfare."
Craig also notes those who work with the dead are often not a priority with the living. "We can't even get hazardous duty pay," she says, exasperated.
A case like Deborah Reeve's could still happen, Craig said. Responders run in to help before the air is clear.
The more protection they afford ourselves, she said, the less they can be terrorized.
In a case where rapidly-acting weapons of mass destruction had been involved, says Craig, "hundreds, if not thousands of America's most experienced and altruistic responders would also be at risk of immediate death and debilitation" just because they touched the deceased.
And the chances of the rest of us perishing would increase because we would have so few skilled workers left to identify what we were dying of.