More microbe testing planned at Detrick

Sampling outside labs to detect possible leaks after anthrax is found

April 25, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Army officials at Fort Detrick plan to begin regular sampling for hazardous organisms outside laboratories where biodefense research is done after finding anthrax contamination in an office and corridor at the Frederick facility, said spokesman Chuck Dasey.

"We'll be reviewing our environmental safety and industrial hygiene programs, and we expect there will be some need to routinely survey areas outside the labs," Dasey said yesterday.

The source of the low-level contamination discovered last week in a changing room, an office and a corridor has not been found. But initial genetic testing shows the spores found outside the lab did not come from a small anthrax spill inside the lab the previous week, Dasey said.

The spores are being shipped from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to a Northern Arizona University lab for more sophisticated analysis, he said.

The contamination was discovered last week by a scientist who decided on his own to take swabs from various surfaces, Dasey said. The scientist reported the tests to USAMRIID officials only after they detected anthrax, he said.

"We don't know why the individual decided to do the testing," he said. "The individual will be interviewed as part of our investigation."

A few spores of anthrax were found on top of a locker, and one scenario is that the spores may have been carried out of the lab on a contaminated towel, one scientist said.

While one researcher who noticed the spill in the lab April 8 had a positive nasal swab, he was already immunized against anthrax and placed on antibiotics as a precaution. Since then, about 35 Fort Detrick workers, as well as seven employees of a laundry that washes towels and clothing from USAMRIID, were given nasal swab tests. All were negative, Dasey said.

Tests in 32 locations in the laundry at the Jeanne Bussard Center, a Frederick facility, also were negative.

Jeanne Dalaba, the center's executive director, said she arranged for separate tests in the laundry facility. Again, no anthrax was found, and the Army agreed to pay the $10,000 cost of the private testing.

Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty said although Fort Detrick officials informed her of the anthrax contamination, they did not mention the possibility that it might have reached the Jeanne Bussard Center.

"We're not trying to be Chicken Littles and say the sky is falling," Dougherty said. "But when it goes outside of Fort Detrick it's not only the Army's responsibility, it's mine."

Tests last weekend inside a second lab turned up traces of the Sterne strain of anthrax, which does not cause disease in humans. Though it posed no danger, the finding indicates a "break in procedures" because the organism should have been confined to flasks, Dasey said.

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