Anthrax found in 5 more D.C. buildings

Spores discovered at Supreme Court, State, Justice, VOA

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 30, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Small amounts of anthrax were found in the Supreme Court's basement mailroom and four other federal buildings in Washington yesterday, and the Environmental Protection Agency proposed fumigating a Senate office building to kill spores of the lethal bacteria.

In the 15th confirmed case of illness caused by poisoned mail, New Jersey health authorities reported that a woman who handles mail for a private company there has cutaneous anthrax.

Officials suggested that her skin infection may have resulted from cross-contamination, with spores from three anthrax-laced letters handled at a mail-sorting facility near her workplace clinging to mail the woman later touched.

Dr. Patrick Meehan of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said such cross-contamination might pose "a very, very small risk of cutaneous-type anthrax."

The skin form of the disease is easily treated and not nearly as serious as inhalation anthrax, which has killed three people in the past month.

Sampling at an express mail center near Baltimore-Washington International Airport found no anthrax, state officials said. The BWI center drew special scrutiny because a worker at Washington's Brentwood postal facility who contracted anthrax had worked there part time. Three other Brentwood workers have contracted anthrax, two of whom died.

A top biodefense official said scientists at Fort Detrick in Frederick who are testing the mailed anthrax have found that it is mixed with silica, a common powder used in pharmaceutical and food products to prevent clumping.

Army Maj. Gen. John S. Parker said that contrary to published reports, the powder does not contain bentonite, a clay additive that some experts had said might point to Iraq as a source. Parker said at a White House briefing that the significance of the silica finding is not yet clear.

As the Supreme Court justices heard arguments outside their marble-columned building for the first time since 1935, a court spokeswoman said investigators found anthrax spores in one part of the basement mailroom.

The mailroom had been tested more than a week earlier and no spores were found, said spokeswoman Kathleen L. Arberg. But after anthrax was found Friday on an air filter at a Prince George's County warehouse being used to inspect the court's mail, officials conducted further testing over the weekend.

Arberg said the Supreme Court building will undergo testing while justices continue their work in borrowed quarters at a federal courthouse a few blocks away.

Separate rounds of testing may produce different results because the tests are spot checks, not complete sweeps of suspected areas, officials said. The Maryland hazardous materials team took 37 samples at the 60,000-square-foot express mail facility near BWI.

Testers "tried to sample areas along the flow path of the mail," said Michael Sharon, chief of the state hazardous materials squad. The samples came from "desk surfaces, conveyor belts, sorting machines and other places where mail might have been placed."

Anthrax spores - the hardy, dormant form of the bacteria - were also found in a mail-handling facility for the State Department and at another building that houses agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Voice of America. Traces of anthrax also were found in a Department of Agriculture research office and at the Justice Department.

So far, anthrax has been found in more than a dozen locations in the capital. Traces of the bacteria also were found at the U.S. Embassy in Peru, in a diplomatic pouch sent from the State Department's contaminated mail-handling center in Sterling, Va.

The worst contamination is believed to be in the Hart Senate Office Building, where a letter mailed to Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota was found to contain extremely fine-grained anthrax particles that exposed 28 staff members. That letter is also suspected to be the chief source of the infections among Brentwood postal workers.

In an effort to speed the anthrax cleanup on Capitol Hill, the EPA recommended that the Hart building be fumigated with chlorine dioxide gas, commonly used to disinfect water, meat and produce.

Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid of Nevada said the agency chose that method as the "quickest, most productive and least destructive" way to rid the large, airy building of deadly bacteria.

EPA officials said their proposal will be reviewed by outside scientists before a final decision is made. Once begun, the cleanup of the Hart building's 10 million cubic feet of space is expected to take about two weeks.

Traces of anthrax have been found in three other congressional office buildings, including the Longworth and Ford buildings, which, like Hart, remain closed.

Officials said the chlorine dioxide gas would leave no toxic residues and would not harm papers and other personal effects in the building. Reid said he has paintings in his Hart office that he's very fond of, but has no plans to move them before the fumigation.

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