WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 (UPI) -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Tuesday that the substance found near his office was a deadly poison but that none of the staffers exposed were sick and that the Senate would continue to conduct business.
Speaking with Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer and others, Frist confirmed that ricin, a poison fro which there is no antidote, had been discovered in his personal office mailroom.
"Indeed this is ricin," he said. "(But among the exposed staff members) everyone's doing fine."
The powder apparently arrived in a piece of mail and was discovered by mailroom employees in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. According to Capitol Police, 16 employees were exposed to the powder and were decontaminated but none has shown symptoms of ricin poisoning.
The powder was noticed Monday afternoon and was tested repeatedly by Capitol Hill Police, and samples were sent to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Army's chemical and biological weapons at Fort Detrick, Md., for testing. Not every sample tested positive for the substance but the results were consistent enough for Frist to announce his belief that it was the deadly poison.
Although all three major Senate office buildings were closed Tuesday, the Senate remained in session and Frist -- a medical doctor -- went before his colleagues in the morning to confirm fears that the powder was a deadly poison.
The tests did show "this was ricin," Frist said, describing the event as an act of deliberate terrorism.
"Somebody in all likelihood manufactured this with intent to harm," he said.
The Senate also canceled all committee hearings Tuesday as most committees meet in office buildings rather the Capitol itself.
Monday's discovery of potentially contaminated mail is the second time that an attempt has been made against the Senate Majority Leader's office involving poisoned mail delivered through the postal service. In October 2001, a series of letters contaminated with weaponized anthrax were sent to Daschle, who was then the majority leader, other lawmakers and major media organizations over a several-week period. Those letters infected more than a dozen people, five of whom died, including two mail sorters at the mail facility in Washington that feeds the Capitol campus.
As a result of that contamination, the Hart Senate Office Building, which houses Daschle's offices, was closed for months as the Environmental Protection Agency made multiple attempts to decontaminate the building of the anthrax spores.
Investigators were never able to name a suspect in the case.
Frist said that contamination had given police and staff the experience to properly respond to the latest incident.
"We have come a long way since the anthrax (attacks)," he said of the first responder's efforts.
The Dirksen building has been closed and Gainer said investigators would soon enter the building and take possession of the mail in an attempt to determine how it had been sent. It's unclear whether the regular postal service was used to deliver the package, something Gainer said would be closely examined.
Although as many as 16 people were exposed Monday to the ricin powder, which can be absorbed through skin, ingestion or inhalation, none was expected to get sick, Frist said. People infected with ricin generally show symptoms within six to eight hours, according to a statement by the CDC and Frist.
In a related scare, a postal worker at a facility in Connecticut discovered a letter containing a suspicious powder, which is being tested. Unconfirmed reports said the letter was addressed to the Republican National Committee and might also contain ricin.
The mail sorting facility -- located in Wallingford -- was also found to have anthrax spores in 2001. One person in Connecticut whose mail was sorted at Wallingford died of anthrax exposure thought to have come through the mail service.
Since those attacks, all mail to the Capitol campus is scanned and irradiated, which can neutralize anthrax but is unlikely to have an effect on ricin.
Ricin can derived fairly easily from the castor bean plant. The poison is considered more deadly than cobra venom, according to some reports.