Hartford, Conn. Traces of anthrax were found on a letter in Connecticut for the first time Friday, prompting the governor to suggest the 94-year-old woman who died mysteriously of the disease last week might have gotten it from her mail after all.
Gov. John Rowland said no direct connection had been made between the letter found at a home in Seymour and the death Nov. 21 of Ottilie Lundgren, who lived about 3 miles away in Oxford.
But Rowland said her mail like the Seymour envelope may have been contaminated, perhaps indirectly, by anthrax-tainted letters sent to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy in Washington.
"I don't think that anyone suspects that Mrs. Lundgren was a target," he said. "We all believe, again unscientifically because it's not proven, that she was a victim of cross-contamination."
Authorities described the Seymour letter as a personal piece of mail that was processed Oct. 9 at the Hamilton facility near Trenton, N.J.
They did not disclose details about its postmark or any addresses, but John Farkas of Seymour that he received the letter.
"All our daughters are fine. All the people who visited our house are fine," he told WICC-AM of Bridgeport. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with us."
Same day, same place
The letters sent to Daschle and Leahy were postmarked Oct. 9 at the Hamilton facility. Rowland said the Seymour letter moved through a sorting machine within seconds of one of the Washington letters.
The Washington letters are blamed for contaminating a number of Washington buildings and for killing two postal workers.
Late Friday, authorities planned to pump chlorine dioxide gas into Daschle's office at the Hart Senate Office Building, where the letter sent to him was opened last month. Officials said they would make sure none of the deadly chemical escaped as they cleaned the office.
The Seymour letter was among about 300 pieces of mail that moved through a sorting machine at about the same time as the tainted letters sent to Daschle and Leahy.
Postal inspectors using records of fluorescent orange bar codes on mail have tracked the letters, and alerted health and law enforcement officials in the areas where the letters were sent. Postal officials said they knew of no health problems related to the mail.
The Hamilton facility, which has been closed since Oct. 18, also handled anthrax-tainted letters sent to news organizations in New York.
'Not an unexpected finding'
Federal health authorities said they still do not know how Lundgren was exposed. The discovery of the letter simply supports the theory that cross-contamination in the mail is possible, said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"This is not an unexpected finding. We have had other possible cross-contamination mail in other locations," Koplan said.
Rowland said it was possible that hundreds or thousands of pieces of mail have "second- or third-generation" contamination from letters that moved through New Jersey at the same time as the Daschle and Leahy letters "but not enough to harm anyone or make anyone sick."
"It's more dangerous to cross the street than it is to open your mail in America right now," Rowland said.
In Seymour, residents said they were worried.
"They better check everybody around here," said Frank Ajello. "We all have the same mail man."
Connie DeRosa of Oxford said she called her doctor for antibiotics when she heard the news. "I'm going on a trip for eight days. I'm scared to leave my family behind," she said.
Lundgren is the fifth person to die since the nation's anthrax scare began in early October. Investigators have not determined how the widow who rarely left home contracted inhaled anthrax, the rarest and deadliest form of the disease.
Tests of her home, mail and the handful of places she visited in Connecticut on a regular basis have so far come up negative.
Using envelope bar codes, authorities said they had determined that a small amount of mail for the Oxford area passed through the Hamilton facility.
Rowland said investigators looked at the Seymour envelope after they started probing the death of an 84-year-old man who lived next door. Tests have ruled out anthrax as the cause of his death.
CDC officials, however, said they were led to the letter through the bar code data. The Seymour letter was the only one processed Oct. 9 that went to the Seymour or Oxford ZIP codes, said Dr. David Fleming of the CDC.
"We're continuing to work with post office to assess if there were letters went through on subsequent days," he said.
Investigators continue to look for any similarities to the baffling case of a 61-year-old New York City woman who died Oct. 31, also from the inhaled form of anthrax. Both women lived alone.