Potato-chip containers figure in Canadian flap

Postal workers nervous about TB in the mail

As some experts in the United States fretted about live TB bugs in landfills (see cover story), Canadian postal workers spent the spring wrangling with provincial TB controllers over how specimens are transported in the mail from suspected TB cases.

Many of the specimens in question come from suspected TB cases who live in the northernmost reaches of the sparsely populated Saskatchewan Province. Under the country’s newly centralized TB control system, more than half of the specimens are dispatched, via the Canadian post, to the University Hospital Laboratory in Saskatoon.

When postal workers went public with their complaints, they charged that samples were being sent "improperly packaged" through the mail. According to a report in the Vancouver Sun, one sample mailed recently had been placed in an empty potato-chip container sealed with masking tape.

"The laboratory tells me they have not received anything packaged in potato-chip containers," says Vernon Hoepner, MD, head of TB control for Saskatchewan Province. He adds, however, that the containers in which specimens are mailed for laboratory analysis do, in fact, bear some resemblance to used potato-chip containers, a fact he speculates may have led to the charge.

Cardboard cylinders about 5 inches high and 1.25 inches in diameter, the approved containers come equipped with a metal screw-cap; inside, specimens are placed into a second, smaller, plastic container, which is placed into a zip-locked plastic bag.

Over the years, the most frequent complaint from postal workers is that the lids sometimes are not screwed on tightly, says Hoepner. Postal workers also complain the zip-locked bags aren’t zipped. None of those complaints has arisen within the past six months, he adds.

The northern portions of Saskatchewan have considerably higher TB rates than other parts of the country, Hoepner says: about 100/100,000, which is well above the national average of 7/100,000. Adding to postal workers’ anxiety, he says, may be the annual flood of TB-related material, which inundates the post office every spring, marking the advent of World TB Day.

To air out the issues, a meeting was held recently among postal workers, union representatives, and the head of the hospital laboratory, Hoepner says. During the talks, the hospital laboratory chief emphasized that even if the containers were somehow damaged during shipment, risk to postal workers was slight, he says.

"It also became apparent that contrary to policy, sometimes postal workers were putting these containers into [larger containers], which would sometimes hold as much as 100 kilograms of mail," he adds. "That has the potential to crush them."

The university lab in Saskatoon receives about 85% of all TB samples from around the province, says Hoepner, including about 3,500 containers sent through the mail. But since they are the ones at greatest risk for exposure, workers at the hospital lab "would be the first to flag us if there were improperly closed samples," he notes. "And they’re not restless about this at all."

At last word, the dispute seemed to have been ironed out to the satisfaction of all parties. TB controllers, for their part, have agreed to pack the smaller, second container, already ensconced in its zip-locked bag, inside some additional absorbent material before mailing it.