The John Cochran VA Medical Center sent a letter to 1,812 veterans this week, notifying them that they may have been exposed to deadly blood-borne diseases at the center's dental clinic.
Unsanitary cleaning practices may have made an otherwise routine trip to the dentist hazardous to the veterans' health. Gina Michael, association chief of staff at the hospital, told KSDK 5 in St. Louis that the clinic had been washing its tools by hand instead of using a special detergent to clean the instruments, as protocol requires.
The unsafe practice lasted for just over a year, from February 2009 to March 2010.
The New York Times reported that the letters described the risk level as low but said the hospital has set up a special clinic to offer free testing for veterans who may have been exposed.
Missouri lawmakers are furious and have asked the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee to investigate and discipline those involved.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo.,wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama this week. "I can only imagine the horror and anger our veterans must be feeling after receiving this letter. They have every right to be angry. So am I."
A former employee at the Cochran Center said she warned the dental clinic that its cleaning practices were unsafe but was ignored.
Earlene Johnson, 53, said she wrote an e-mail to management at the hospital last August encouraging her supervisors to use better techniques to sterilize the equipment.
"The instruments were coming out bloody -- not all of them but some of them," she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Johnson told the paper she was let go for "unprofessional conduct" but plans to dispute the firing in court.
According to The New York Times, federal inspectors reported in April that the hospital's endoscopes may be contaminated, and complained that there were no "defined clean and dirty areas" in the Cochran's sterilization section.