Anthrax testing moves past Washington

Posted: Tuesday, November 06, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Investigators looking for anthrax spores are moving far beyond the nation's capital, scouring Labor Department mailrooms in Philadelphia, U.S. embassies abroad and postal facilities from New York to Phoenix.

Initially, anthrax tests were concentrated at postal facilities and buildings in Washington known to have received tainted letters. But as the trail of anthrax spores becomes longer, more federal agencies inside and outside the Beltway feel it necessary to test mailrooms and prescribe antibiotics for employees -- just in case.

Thousands of environmental samples, including scores from federal offices, are being evaluated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, turning the anthrax scare into an almost nationwide waiting game.

To date, the biological attack has killed four people and infected 13 others. Though concentrated along the East Coast, anthrax also has been found in Kansas City, Mo., and Indianapolis.

The U.S. Postal Service is testing 267 facilities across America and cleanup continues at Capitol Hill buildings.

But Labor Department mailrooms also have been closed for anthrax tests in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

All State Department mailrooms in and outside the country are being cleaned, and tests are being conducted on dozens of suspicious powders and white substances sent to U.S. diplomatic offices worldwide, including in Pakistan, Panama, Abidjan and Montevideo.

State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said a preliminary test from a local laboratory in Lahore, Pakistan, came back positive -- and needing more tests.

''There are a lot of tests going on,'' Boucher said.

Anthrax tests have been conducted at Federal Reserve Board mail-handling facilities in Washington and at other locations around the country.

The Securities and Exchange Commission headquarters in Washington has been tested; its New York regional office is being tested this week.

The Commerce Department conducted tests on facilities outside the nation's capital if they had had any contact with Washington's Brentwood post office in Washing-ton, which was shut down by anthrax contamination. Those tested included the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Md., and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. Preliminary results were negative.

Other buildings being tested inside Washington included the Department of Justice headquarters, mailrooms at the National Aeronautics and Space Admini-stration, the Environmental Protec-tion Agency's offices and buildings that house the Coast Guard, Federal Aviation Administration and the Social Security Administration.

A suspicious letter addressed to the Treasury Department is being tested. The handwritten letter, found at an offsite, undisclosed mail facility in Washington, bore the same Trenton, N.J., postmark as anthrax-laced mail delivered in New York and Washington.

Many of the tests show no traces of anthrax, but spores still have made their way across the city.

At the Pentagon, anthrax was found in two boxes at a U.S. Post Office, situated in an area that has a bank, food kiosks and several shops. Six employees there had been put on medication shortly after anthrax was discovered at the Brentwood post office in Washington, which was closed by anthrax contamination.

U.S. Army experts have been testing randomly for anthrax throughout the Pentagon for at least three weeks, Defense Department spokesperson Glenn Flood said. The Pentagon's air also has been periodically checked for anthrax and other contaminants since the Sept. 11 attack.

The ventilation system at the State Department, just a few blocks from the White House, uncovered no traces of anthrax, officials said. But anthrax spores were found in two mailrooms in the complex.

The CIA reopened its mail building Monday after cleaning it of traces of anthrax found there on Oct. 25, spokesperson Mark Mansfield said. Several agency employees were given antibiotics as a precaution, even though the amounts were not believed to be enough to make anyone ill.

Small amounts of anthrax also were uncovered in a Veterans Affairs hospital. Officials said that while the hospital's 250 patients will be monitored, it is unlikely anthrax could have spread beyond the mailroom.

The CDC does not think quick field tests, such as ones being used in scores of federal buildings, are always the best way to find contaminated areas. Dr. Bradley Perkins, a lead anthrax investigator, reiterated on Monday that the CDC favors tests that involve growing cultures, even though they take longer.

The preliminary field tests show the presence of Bacillus-type bacteria, but not necessarily anthrax, which is in the Bacillus family. Perkins said the CDC was working to develop public health guidelines on how to best conduct environmental anthrax tests.

Perkins emphasized that a positive does not necessarily mean there are enough anthrax spores to cause illness. ''We know some level of contamination does not pose a risk for human disease,'' he said.

But his reassurances cannot quell alarm when white powder spills out of letters.

For instance, a granular substance in a piece of mail at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration turned out to be paper residue from the envelope. And powder found around a trash can at the Environmental Protection Agency turned out to be a cleaning agent.

''We didn't take any chances,'' EPA spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said. ''It turned out to be false.''



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