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Anthrax spreads through government

By ELLEN BECK, UPI Science News   |   Oct. 29, 2001 at 7:54 PM
WASHINGTON, Oct. 29 (UPI) -- With the prospect of another terror attack on the horizon, and yet more pockets of anthrax spores and cases coming to light, the federal government Monday stepped up efforts to address the bio-attack that has held the attention of the nation for several weeks.

To kill the anthrax spores found in the Hart Senate office building -- the location of the district office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who received an envelope containing the deadly pathogen -- the Environmental Protection Agency Monday proposed to flood contaminated areas with chlorine dioxide gas. The process will mean the Hart Building will be closed through most of the first two weeks of November.

Infected areas will be sealed off and gas pumped in with test strips of a different, harmless bacteria used to measure the effectiveness of the gas.

"We are not introducing anything harmful into the building," explained EPA consultant Paul Schaudies, referring to the strips.

Officials said the proposed plan, which must be approved by Congress, is the only method available to preserve important papers and documents contained in the Hart Senate offices.

Minutes after the Hart building announcement, Attorney General John Ashcroft told reporters the government had information of another terror attack that could take place sometime in the next week. He said he could not be more specific as to what might be in the offing, the location of any potential targets or the exact timing.

As the government struggled to cope with the spreading anthrax scare in the nation's capital, some 13,000 postal workers in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. were put on precautionary doses of antibiotics. The U.S. Postal Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continued environmental testing for anthrax on post offices and government buildings in those areas.

CNN reported in New Jersey, officials said a 51-year-old woman who is not a postal worker, but a neighbor living in the Hamilton Township postal facility area, has tested positive for cutaneous anthrax, the less deadly skin form of the infection. Both the Hamilton facility and a nearby West Trenton, N.J. postal site have tested positive for anthrax. Two postal workers also have cutaneous anthrax infection and one has inhalation anthrax infection.

The State Department said it had found trace amounts of anthrax in two of its mail rooms, a mail pouch at the U.S. embassy in Lima, Peru, and a batch of mail headed to one of its branch offices in Washington.

As a result, it ordered the clean up of all of its mail facilities, including those at more than 250 embassies and consulates overseas. It has placed all employees in contact with the mail -- including those that distribute mail within offices at the State Department -- on antibiotics as a preventive measure.

State, like most government agencies, gets its mail through the Brentwood sorting facility near Capitol Hill, which handled the one anthrax-laced letter confirmed in Washington.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Monday anthrax also had been discovered at an HHS building.

Questions sharpened over the weekend on whether the bacteria might have come from an overseas government source -- possibly Iraq -- which is known to have done anthrax weapons research. The focus was whether the mineral compound bentonite might have been added to the anthrax to help the spores linger in the air.

Maj. Gen. John Parker, the top Army scientist on the anthrax investigation, said Monday investigators did find silica, a clay substance, mixed in with anthrax contained in the letters sent to Daschle's office and the New York Post newspaper. Parker said they had not found aluminum, a component in bentonite, a substance supposedly used by the Iraqis. Parker said he did not know, however, what the silica finding means.

The Supreme Court Monday heard argument at a D.C. federal court building rather than its usual home on Capitol Hill, the first time since the British burned Washington in 1814 the justices have been driven from their courtroom by a threat. Anthrax spores were confirmed Monday in the mailroom of the Supreme Court building, Anthrax also was found last week in the court's mail screening warehouse in the Maryland suburbs.

At least some of the justices were taking an antibiotic regimen as a precaution, though court officials refuse to confirm.

The Department of Justice closed its Landover, Md., mail facility after it tested positive for anthrax spores. The facility, which also receives its mail from Brentwood, handles mail for Justice and some of its related agencies.

CDC anthrax expert Dr. Bradley Perkins in Atlanta said Monday the agency is working under a hypothesis additional letters -- yet undetected or opened -- in the Washington mail system may be carrying anthrax. He said some 50 scientists at CDC were working around the clock analyzing the anthrax samples being sent in.

The anthrax trails from New Jersey, Washington and New York appear to have links. Investigators have said three anthrax letters, sent to NBC News in New York, Daschle and the Post earlier this month have similar handwriting on their envelopes. The strain of anthrax used in all of the letters is the same -- a naturally occurring anthrax that is susceptible to antibiotics. All three letters were sent through Trenton, N.J.

Standard mail processing of the Daschle letter or potentially other anthrax letters, at Brentwood -- via mail sorting machinery -- appears to have spread the anthrax spores to other mail then sent to other government agency mailrooms and possibly to private businesses.

Perkins said in cases where it is possible, the U.S. Postal Service has recalled mail that may have contained a contaminated letter or package.

"That mail is being recalled and intensively evaluated by FBI," Perkins said.

In Florida, the anthrax investigation is different. Officials have not found any anthrax-laced letters as yet -- however, the mailroom at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, where the anthrax scare began in early October, has tested positive for anthrax. Several area post offices have tested positive as well.

Florida officials said suspected anthrax found by postal workers in an envelope addressed to Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., has tested negative. The envelope leaking white powder was found at the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., post office north of Boca Raton.

Elsewhere, Boston's General Mail Facility, in terms of square footage the second-largest mail processing center in the country, was tested for anthrax Sunday, but preliminary results show no traces.

Despite the fact no cases of anthrax have been confirmed in Boston, postal employees are nervous, according to 35-year veteran postal worker Joseph Murray.

"I'm glad they've done something to check now rather than waiting for something to happen down the road," he told the Boston Globe.

In Fort Worth, Texas, U.S. Postal Inspector Kenny Smith said gloves and masks have been made available to all postal employees in the region but their use is voluntary.

"From what I've seen they are concerned, but for the most part they are handling it very well," he said. "I believe they see the threat as relatively low around here, but obviously they are concerned."

Smith said he would estimate "well less than half the employees" he has seen are wearing the masks and gloves.

There have been lots of false alarms in the area, which includes North Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, and a few hoaxes but to this point no actual cases of anthrax contamination or exposure in the region, he said.

Also, some postal workers were considering legal action in the wake of the anthrax mail assaults.

Wayne Cohen, a personal injury lawyer with the Washington-based firm Cohen & Cohen, told UPI he has been approached by four postal employees, two with suspicious symptoms and two with confirmed cases of inhalation anthrax.

"We are looking at what may be viable claims against the government and entities with which the government contracts if it is shown that testing wasn't done in a timely and appropriate fashion," said Cohen, who also is a law professor at George Washington University.

Legal scenarios could include making so-called non-fault based claims under workers' compensation. In such cases, plaintiffs are only required to show they suffered an injury not that the injury was based on egregious conduct by employers. Such cases are relatively straightforward and often do not require attorneys.

But private claims against the government or contracting parties would require the parties to prove egregious conduct.

Cohen said U.S. law makes it possible to seek claims against known terrorists states in cases where the terrorists' assets are frozen.

"If a terrorist state was behind the anthrax, then anyone who suffered may have a claim against the terrorists," said Cohen. "But everything I've read until now suggests no direct ties to bin Laden or his network."

The CDC said Monday the number of anthrax infections remains at 13, eight inhalation and five cutaneous. The new New Jersey cutaneous infection was not included in the count.

Two Washington postal workers and an American Media Inc. photo editor have died from inhalation anthrax infection. Another AMI worker also was diagnosed with it but is recovering at home. Two other D.C. postal workers, a State Department worker and the New Jersey postal worker from Hamilton Township also are hospitalized with this more serious type of anthrax.

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(With additional reporting by Kelly Hearn, Mike Kirkland, Eli Lake and Nick Horrock in Washington, Phil Magers in Dallas, Dave Haskell in Boston and Les Kjos in Miami.)

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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