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Last Updated

02 Nov 2002

Source:  United Press International, November 2, 2002.

Anthrax cleanup of Brentwood to begin

By Steve Mitchell, Medical Correspondent, Science & Technology Desk

WASHINGTON, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- U.S. Postal Service officials said Friday that in the next two weeks they expect to begin final cleanup of the Brentwood facility, which has been shut down since it was contaminated with anthrax in the fall of 2001.

Postal officials have given assurances the cleanup procedure could be done safely but Brentwood postal workers and residents of the northeastern Washington community where the facility is located said they still have concerns.

The cleanup process, which could take a day or two, should begin "as soon as possible," Tom Day, vice president of engineering at the Postal Service, said at a public roundtable meeting held by the District of Columbia's committee on government operations.

That could be as early as Nov. 16, Day said, but added once cleanup is finished "there will be several months of work required" to refurbish the building before it is ready to be reopened. Officials anticipate reopening in March or April.

He noted the mail sorting machine that handled the anthrax letter sent to the office of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., will be removed from service and disposed of. The decontamination should render the machine anthrax-free but it may stir anxiety among postal employees returning to the facility so it will be removed, Day said.

The USPS will head the cleanup team, which also will include the District's Department of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The Senate Hart building, where Daschle has his offices, was successfully decontaminated and reopened in January but cleanup of Brentwood may prove to be a challenge. Day noted "a cleanup of this type on this scale has never been done before." Hart was less than 100,000 cubic feet, whereas the Brentwood building is a great deal larger at 17.5 million cubic feet.

Pieces of cleanup equipment have been built specifically for Brentwood and tests to ensure the equipment and the cleanup process functions adequately have delayed the start of the decontamination procedure.

The cleanup protocol essentially will be the same as the Hart Building. Workers will spray in 2,000 pounds of an anthrax-killing gas called chorine dioxide for approximately 12 hours to ensure all anthrax spores are killed. Next, neutralizing chemicals will be sprayed in to convert the deadly gas to harmless salt and water byproducts in a process known as scrubbing.

The local community remains concerned the chlorine dioxide gas could leak out of the building and endanger residents. There are high levels of "anxiety" in the community, said Regina James of the advisory neighborhood commission. She urged officials to take precautions to protect residents and ensure the gas does not leak out of the building.

Officials said they have taken a number of steps to ensure safety. They have sealed the building so no gas can escape and are establishing evacuation plans on the slim chance something does go awry. Emergency workers will be standing by and negative air pressure will be maintained in the building during decontamination, so even if there is a leak the gas will remain inside the building rather than flowing outside.

Postal workers who worked in the building last fall during the anthrax attacks remain concerned the decontamination procedure may miss some of the deadly bacteria. Two employees died from anthrax and Brentwood was renamed the Joseph Curseen Jr. (case 16), and Thomas Morris Jr. (case 15), Processing and Distribution Center in their honor.

Employees want assurances that the building will remain closed until every last trace of anthrax is gone, said Dena Briscoe, a Brentwood worker and president of the support group Brentwood Exposed.

Officials are saying the decontamination procedure will leave the facility "100 percent safe" but that does not mean the same thing as 100 percent of the anthrax spores will be killed, Briscoe said.

Theodore Gordon, a Department of Health official, said, "We will not permit that building to reopen" until the scientific evidence shows it is free of anthrax.

Dorothy Canter of the EPA, said, however, "All environmental samples taken must show zero growth for anthrax spores ... but we cannot guarantee that there will be zero spores left." There may be a "negligible risk, ... we can't guarantee zero risk," she added.

Even if the facility is certified to be anthrax-free, Briscoe pointed out the perpetrator of the anthrax letters has never been caught and postal workers still are concerned they remain unprotected and on the front-lines of another anthrax attack in the future.

Day said the postal service is working on ways to protect employees and has "come up with a biodetector system that we plan to deploy nationwide." It can detect multiple strains of anthrax and other pathogens in 90 minutes or less, he said. The system will be installed in 14 pilot facilities, including Brentwood, next spring, coinciding with the scheduled reopening of the facility, he said.

Briscoe told United Press International the detectors still would leave employees vulnerable because although they would be used on local mail they would not be used on mail coming into Brentwood that originates in other postal facilities. The anthrax letter sent to Daschle's office last fall originated at a New Jersey postal facility prior to passing through Brentwood and arriving at the Hart Building.