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Archive for Monday, October 29, 2001

Anthrax spores found in Supreme Court

October 29, 2001

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— The threat of anthrax sent the Supreme Court justices packing off to an alternative courtroom on Monday and evidence of fresh contamination turned up at the State Department and at least two more government buildings.

With confirmed spores at more than 10 locations in the nation's capital, a spokesman for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said residents need not fear inhalation anthrax when they open their mail. He said they "may have a very very small risk of cutaneous type anthrax."

"It's important to remember we're doing very aggressive surveillance," said Dr. Patrick Meehan.

Officials said the anthrax found in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle included silica. "We don't know why it would be there," said Maj. Gen. John Parker, who heads the Army's Fort Detrick, Md., laboratory.

Silica, or silicon dioxide, is found in nature as sand, quartz or flint.

It is a colorless, tasteless crystal that is commonly used as a drying agent in pharmaceuticals and in food production. It helps control caking or clumping in powered products.

Parker said officials had ruled out the presence of aluminum in the sample. That, he said, meant there was no bentonite, a lubricant that he said would make the spores spread through the air more easily.

Officials had said previously that the anthrax in Daschle's mail had been changed to make it more readily float into the air, and thus become more likely to be inhaled into the lungs.

In all, officials have tallied 14 confirmed cases of anthrax in the last three weeks, including three deaths from the inhalation form of the disease.

There were positive tests for anthrax at a building that houses the Voice of America and Food and Drug Administration; the main State Department building and the main Supreme Court building.

One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said two pieces of mail brought into the State Department mailroom had tested positive. The mail came directly from the central Brentwood mail processing facility in the nation's capital.

The discovery of anthrax last week in a remote mail site several blocks from the Supreme Court had already forced the closure of the main Supreme Court building.

The justices held court at a facility several blocks away while tests continued in their permanent quarters. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, referring to the dislocation, thanked employees "whose hard work made it possible to hear arguments."

A court spokeswoman, Kathy Arberg, said the latest testing detected anthrax in only one place a portion of the basement mailroom. Tests elsewhere in the mailroom and elsewhere in the building showed no evidence of contamination.

"Based upon the positive testing in the mailroom, additional testing is being conducted today," said Arberg.

The latest positive test results followed the discovery of anthrax at the Justice Department, where officials announced Sunday night that several locations in an offsite facility that handles its mail had tested positive for anthrax.

The department's in-house mailrooms had stopped receiving mail from the suburban Landover, Md., location several days ago as a precaution. No other Justice facility has tested positive for anthrax, department spokeswoman Susan Dryden said.

Last week, a State Department mailroom worker was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax.

Three people have died and five others have been diagnosed with inhaled anthrax. Six people have the less serious cutaneous form of the disease, which affects the skin.

On Capitol Hill, the Hart Senate Office Building remained closed Monday, but other Senate offices were open. On the House side, the Ford and Longworth office buildings were closed against Monday.

The Hart building houses Daschle's office, where an employee opened a letter containing a highly potent form of anthrax three weeks ago. Since then, two postal employees from a Washington facility that processed the letter have died.

Deborah Willhite, a Postal Service senior vice president, said the agency was working with the Defense Department on obtaining technology that would allow it to detect bacteria in the mail. It already has signed a $40 million contract to buy machines that can sanitize mail.

Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stressed that the New Jersey case was not a new instance of the disease, but one that had been listed as suspected anthrax. Lab tests confirmed the diagnosis Sunday, he said.

A second New Jersey worker, classified as a "suspected case" of inhalation anthrax based on preliminary tests, was released over the weekend from the hospital after her medical condition improved. Two other postal workers at the Hamilton, N.J., center where anthrax-tainted mail was handled, and a letter carrier in Ewing, N.J., are being treated for confirmed or suspected cases of skin anthrax.

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