Anthrax Spread By Contact in ’01

Posted June 25, 2004 at 6:37pm

Anthrax contamination on Capitol Hill appears to have been more widespread than was previously reported, according to a recently published report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which suggests that Capitol Police inadvertently spread the deadly bacteria beyond the Hart Senate Office Building while responding to the October 2001 crisis.

“Off-site contamination by equipment and clothing occurred when members of the U.S. Capitol Police Hazardous Device Unit who had responded to the letter returned to their office,” the CDC’s June 4 report revealed. “Environmental sampling located contamination in vehicles and office-space surfaces where equipment was handled.”

The new revelations concerning the spread of spores during the 2001 incident were included in a report outlining recommendations for proper methods of responding to the detection of airborne anthrax.

Provided a copy of the report by Roll Call, Capitol Police Officer Michael Lauer, a department spokesman, declined to comment on the contamination or what steps were taken to clean the vehicles and equipment and referred reporters to an August 2002 report on the anthrax cleanup efforts issued by the Environmental Protection Agency titled “Federal On-Scene Coordinator’s After Action Report for the Capitol Hill Site.”

That report, which received scant attention from the media, states that cleanup work that occurred in the mail room of the Ford House Office Building in 2001 and 2002 “resulted from the accidental spread of anthrax contamination.”

“The [Capitol Police Bomb Squad] inadvertently contaminated gear bags, equipment, and a cardboard box by placing these items in the hallway outside a contaminated suite in the Hart Building,” the EPA document stated. “These items were placed on the floor in the Hart Building, transported in the CPBS vehicles and returned to the CPBS office in the Ford Building.”

One officer familiar with the 2001 events said among the most significant mistakes the department committed was in allowing officers to enter and leave anthrax-tainted areas without undergoing a decontamination process.

Officers in the “warm zone” — the perimeter area around the contaminated site — were allowed to leave the area with their uniforms and equipment.

“Later on, after it was determined that happened, the department confiscated their uniforms, their vehicles,” said the officer.

It is not clear if those items tested positive for anthrax contamination, the officer said. Individual officers were also screened for anthrax, and at least three tested positive for exposure.

A second officer employed by Capitol Police during the 2001 incident said that rank-and-file officers were not informed of the test results, which indicated contamination in some vehicles and office areas.

“The panic was already there,” said the officer, who suggested that much of the department had become “skittish” during the incident.

The new CDC report coincides with the ongoing installation of some 283 new detection devices in major postal distribution centers across the nation and provides voluntary guidance for employers, emergency responders and others preparing to use “autonomous detection systems” in the workplace.

The new Biohazard Detection System produced by Northrop Grumman Corp. operates similarly to a smoke detector, setting off an alarm whenever anthrax is detected in air sampled from envelopes moving through the mail delivery system.

But U.S. Postal Service spokesman Bob Anderson said the new devices have not been installed in the V Street facility that handles mail headed for Capitol Hill and a number of executive branch agencies because the government has other ways of dealing with potential anthrax threats.

“We automatically sanitize all mail going to federal agencies within the D.C. area … so we don’t care whether [anthrax] is there or not because we’re going to kill it,” Anderson said.

That said, the deadly bioterror attacks carried out one month after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have provided medical experts and scientists with fascinating, if frightening, real-world case studies demonstrating how easily anthrax spores may be spread.

A mathematical model developed by two researchers in 2002 suggested that the six letters discovered in the 2001 anthrax attacks spread spores to 5,000 pieces of mail and ultimately led to the deaths of two women who had no known exposure to the agent.

The research — by Glenn Webb of Vanderbilt University and Martin Blaser of New York University and the Veterans Administration Medical Center in New York — concluded that a similar but larger attack using 100 letters could potentially cross-contaminate millions of pieces of mail and infect thousands of individuals.

Indeed, within days after an anthrax-laden letter was opened in Daschle’s office on Oct. 17, 2001, trace amounts of anthrax were turning up far and wide around the Capitol complex.

Investigators theorized that the bacteria was likely spread to other lawmakers’ offices through cross-contamination in the postal stream, when their mail came into contact with the Daschle letter.

Less clear, however, is whether any Capitol Hill staffers who were exposed to anthrax in Daschle’s office may have similarly spread the spores to their cars or homes in the manner that police did, because no environmental sampling was reported for possible home contamination among Capitol Hill workers associated with the opened letter to Daschle, according to the CDC report.

Regardless of whether they did or didn’t, in the end it appeared not to have made a difference as “no anthrax cases were reported among family members from home contamination in any of these instances,” according to the CDC’s analysis.

Lauer, meanwhile, could not confirm whether testing information had been revealed to officers at the time of the anthrax attack — but following the 2001 incident, the department overhauled its policies for potentially contaminated areas.

“We have revised and enhanced our response procedures,” Lauer said.

Officers are now decontaminated before exiting a potential biohazard area — “We make sure our officers have been taken care of prior to leaving the scene,” noted the first officer — and perimeters are more tightly controlled to restrict access.

In addition, Lauer noted that the law enforcement agency did create a new unit, the Hazardous Incident Response Division, to handle hazardous materials following the 2001 incident.

Officers also receive training to respond to similar incidents.

The department is planning to publish a “Guide to Security Awareness,” which will be distributed to Hill offices. The booklet will include information on various security procedures, including how to react to potential biohazards, Lauer said.

Still, those procedures appeared to break down in February 2004, when officers responded to an emergency call in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) personal office for a substance that would later be confirmed to be ricin.

“They sent officers into the contaminated areas without protective devices of any kind,” said the second officer.