BWI mail center scoured for anthrax

No obvious signs of bacteria found

October 26, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Donning white jumpsuits and full-face respirators, state environmental technicians searched an express mail center in Linthicum for evidence of anthrax contamination yesterday, 12 hours after a team from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did the same.

No results of the sampling were immediately available, but officials said there were no obvious signs of anthrax in the facility near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Meanwhile, mailroom employees from private companies in Maryland, including at least one in Anne Arundel County, were placed on antibiotics.

The two-man team from the Maryland Department of the Environment spent more than a hour collecting 37 samples from the 60,000-square-foot mail center, where a postal employee hospitalized with anthrax had worked. Using cotton swabs and de-ionized water, the technicians wiped down conveyor belts, mail slots, desks, countertops, customer service areas and ceiling tiles.

Each sample was then placed in a sandwich-size plastic bag, which was marked to show where the sample was taken.

"We got good samples," Alan J. Williams, project manager for field operations for the MDE, said after leaving the mail center. "We did not observe any unusual substances."

Williams' partner, Jeff Molner, said the pair mostly came across "a lot of lint" and dust similar to what would be found in a machine shop.

Williams said the samples will be analyzed at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene laboratory in Baltimore. State health officials said results are expected in two to five days.

The response to the possible contamination of the mail center seemed to underscore the communication problems in the official response to the anthrax scare.

Anthrax contamination was suspected at the Linthicum center because postal worker Leroy Richmond, a worker in a Washington postal facility who was hospitalized with anthrax, worked three days a week at the facility, which was closed Sunday pending testing.

The CDC had been scheduled to sweep the mail center Tuesday, and Postal Service officials had expected the federal Environmental Protection Agency to do the same Wednesday, said Bob Novak, a Postal Service spokesman. But inspectors from both agencies apparently were delayed because they were concentrating on Washington-area mail centers, Novak said.

Wednesday, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens said federal agencies had not shown up to evaluate the mail center, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered state health officials to inspect the mail center.

About 9 p.m. Wednesday, Postal Service inspectors let a six-member team from the CDC into the facility to take samples, said Greg Colburn, another Postal Service spokesman. He said the technicians took about 15 samples and left shortly before midnight.

MDE technicians arrived about 10 a.m. yesterday, unaware that the federal agency had been there the night before, spokesman Richard J. McIntire said. He said the CDC apparently tried to contact MDE technicians before they went to the mail center but were unsuccessful.

The CDC could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"We were operating under the governor's orders," McIntire said, adding that two evaluations "will give greater confidence that the facility has been thoroughly tested."

Colburn said, "It's probably a good thing. You'll have double validity of the results."

More than 200 workers from the center have been tested for anthrax. Results are pending, the spokesman said last night. Officials have said that no workers have shown any sign of the illness.

Authorities have said that the number of anthrax cases among workers at the Brentwood mail facility in Washington leads them to believe that Richmond was more likely to have been exposed there than at the BWI center.

The BWI mail center handles mostly express mail and airmail. Novak said it is unlikely that the anthrax-laced first-class letter sent to South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle passed through the facility.

"It's assumed that it went from Trenton [N.J.] by truck," Novak said.

The Postal Service continued to process mail at Building E, about 100 feet from the closed facility. Virtually no mail was in Building C when it was ordered closed Sunday, postal officials said. Mail for about 400 post office box holders in that facility was being rerouted to a mail center in Elkridge.

Postal officials said the BWI center could reopen by next week, depending on results of the environmental testing.

Anne Arundel County health officer Frances B. Phillips said 179 employees - about 90 percent of them from the SunTrust mail processing facility in Glen Burnie - have attended an Annapolis clinic set up by the health department Wednesday for mailroom employees of private companies that receive mail directly from Brentwood. She said 147 were given Cipro or other antibiotics as a preventive measure against anthrax.

SunTrust officials said the mail center receives about 50,000 pieces of mail from Brentwood each day.

The health department said county businesses that handle mail from Brentwood and want to arrange for an inspection should call the department at 410-222-7191.

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