Army halts cleanup at Fort Detrick after bacteria vials found

Material not considered a threat to the safety of workers or residents

It might be a few decades old

April 12, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The Army has suspended an environmental cleanup at Fort Detrick after workers discovered 18 vials containing potentially infectious bacteria that may have been left over from biological weapons research carried out decades ago.

The three kinds of bacteria pose no threat to residents of Frederick, because the entire excavation site is covered with a containment structure and exhaust air is passed through high-efficiency filters, said Fort Detrick spokesman Chuck Dasey.

The cleanup workers inside the tentlike structure also face little risk, because they were wearing protective suits and breathing filtered air, he said.

Precautionary steps

But Dasey said that as a precaution, 22 workers were sent to Frederick Memorial Hospital for nose and throat swabs to make sure they were not exposed to the bacteria. No test results were available yesterday.

The discovery of the 18 vials Tuesday occurred in a 400-acre tract known as Area B about a mile west of Fort Detrick proper. The area was used as a landfill from the 1950s until the early 1970s, when the offensive biological weapons program was being closed down.

The excavation, being carried out by IT Corp. of Monroeville, Pa., is aimed at removing potentially cancer-causing solvents that contaminated wells in the area in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But as the workers dig toward the solvents, they have begun to find biological materials.

On Jan. 7, workers found two vials that turned out to contain streptococcus and common soil bacteria.

The latest vials were found in preliminary tests to contain three other kinds of bacteria: Klebsiella pneumoniae, which can cause pneumonia and other infections; Neisseria meningitidis, which can cause meningitis; and Listeria, which can contaminate food and cause brain infections, miscarriage and stillbirth.

Dasey said that while those kinds of bacteria were never prepared by the Army as biological weapons, they may have been studied as potential weapons.

He said all biological weapons agents were supposed to be autoclaved, or rendered harmless with steam heat, after President Richard M. Nixon ordered the offensive biological weapons program shut down in 1969.

`The main issue'

"The main issue is that they're finding biological materials," he said. "They know what the mission of the [bioweapons] program was, so they're proceeding very carefully."

The Army and the National Institutes of Health announced plans this week to build new laboratories at Fort Detrick as part of the government's fast-growing biodefense program.

The $105 million NIH facility would be a biosafety Level 4 lab, equipped to handle the most dangerous pathogens.

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