Hart decontamination still uncertain

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  Nov. 28, 2001 at 5:33 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- Health standards aren't yet set for removing anthrax from the Hart Senate Office Building and other facilities, administration officials testified Wednesday before a Senate committee.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Todd Whitman and John Marburger III, chief science and technology advisor to President Bush, appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans' Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies to discuss the ongoing efforts to clean up buildings exposed in the recent anthrax mailings.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the committee chairman, pressed Whitman to explain what standards have been set for the cleanup.

"We need to ensure that employees are safe from anthrax and safe from the chemicals used to kill anthrax," Mikulski said.

Whitman said the Centers for Disease Control is determining what a medically safe result of decontaminating the buildings would be. For the moment, however, the only consensus is the goal of killing all the anthrax spores in a building, she said. There isn't enough information on anthrax in an urban environment to set a safe "background" level of spores, she said.

"Each event has to be thoroughly analyzed as a separate case before we can propose an effective solution," Whitman said. Agents used to clean a warehouse full of heavy equipment, for example, might be too damaging to use in an office environment, she said.

Marburger told the committee that procedures for decontaminating mail had proven very effective, with irradiation killing off test spores completely. It should be possible to achieve the same results when cleaning out a building, he said.

Looking to the future, Whitman said that while another biological attack hopefully won't occur, the EPA needs legislative assistance to ensure it can effectively handle one. Specifically, the agency needs additional authority to indemnify decontamination contractors against lawsuits. The EPA also needs an updated cost-recovery mechanism to deal with biological agents, she said.

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