By Emma Dumain, Niels Lesniewski, Humberto Sanchez, Jennifer Scholtes and Daniel Newhauser
April 16, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
“I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, it’s too early to tell. We don’t know enough about Boston to even speculate.”
“I think they’ve taken real good precautions to notify everybody as to what happened, and what has happened was far enough away and was caught in a way that it did no damage,” Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin added. “I’m not excessively concerned about it. I think they’ve taken strong steps to avoid any problem.”
Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed.
“Postal officials and law enforcement did an excellent job in detecting and preventing this threat before it reached the Capitol,” said in an email to CQ Roll Call. “The protective measures worked.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes ricin as “a poison ... [that] can be made from the waste material left over from processing castor beans [and] can be in the form of a powder.”
“Ricin poisoning is not contagious,” the CDC continues, but one can become exposed to “ricin-associated illness” if he or she comes in contact with someone who has the material on their body or their clothes, and could be fatal if not responded to quickly.
Though comforting to lawmakers and staff that the envelope of dangerous material never made it inside the Capitol complex, it was not immediately known whether anyone at the mail processing center was exposed and receiving treatment.
Gainer told CQ Roll Call that while the mail handlers were wearing proper attire, “they were all decontaminated and provided clean clothing where needed.” None were exhibiting any symptoms, he said, and they were all now at home.
“These men and women are very quiet professional sentinels,” he wrote in an email. “They intercepted a dangerous letter [meant] to hurt others.”
For senators’ state offices without the first line of defense of a government-run mail processing facility to safeguard against contaminated mail, Gainer said all headquarters outside Washington, D.C. should use “Postal Sentry,” a mail processing system available to state offices free of charge that can help “contain potentially harmful agents.”
Calling it “the only defense available in state offices for this type of threat, Gainer went on to describe the Postal Sentry as “a lightweight desktop device that provides sufficient airflow and filtration to reduce the release of potentially harmful particles while opening mail in an office setting.”
This is the first time in almost a decade that Capitol Hill has been targeted with a genuinely harmful material. There have been periodic scares from time to time, however.
In January, Virginia Republican Reps. Scott Rigell and J. Randy Forbes received letters containing unidentified substances in their district offices.
And a year ago, a handful of House members and nearly all senators received mailings at their home state and Capitol Hill offices containing suspicious powders. In March 2012, the coordinated efforts of the Capitol Police, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service culminated in the arrest of Christopher Lee Carlson at his home in Vancouver, Wash.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.