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Last Updated

27 Nov 2002

Source:  Palm Beach Post (Florida), September 19, 2002.

Dead anthrax spores entered Boca sewer

By John Murawski, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

BOCA RATON -- When FBI investigators came out of the quarantined National Enquirer building during their two-week anthrax search here, area residents were assured the agents were immediately washed down to decontaminate their protective suits.

But few people outside the tight-lipped circle of federal investigators and scientists knew that the decontaminated anthrax runoff was dumped into Boca Raton's sewer system and then made its way to the municipal water-treatment plant.

Some of that runoff was recycled into reclaimed water that's designated by state law for irrigation. It would have ended up sprinkling the emerald lawns of the Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton Community Hospital and others among the 600 customers who are hooked up to reclaimed irrigation water in the city.

Any anthrax spores that might have clung to a protective suit and escaped from the American Media Inc. building would have been chemically treated and killed after the wash down, posing no public safety threat, said Boca Raton Utility Services Director Mike Woika.

Most of the runoff was pumped out to the ocean through a pipe that discharges treated waste water 1 mile out at sea, Woika said. None was mixed with the city's drinking water, which comes from 56 wells.

"Everything that we did, we wanted to make sure that our system and our residents were protected," Woika said.

The details of the decontamination procedure were so guarded that not even the mayor or city council knew that lifeless anthrax spores would flow through the sewer system into the municipal water-treatment plant.

The procedures were worked out by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the wake of last year's anthrax mailings that killed five people, including an AMI photo editor (case 5). The disposal procedures were first tried out here in October when federal agents tested for anthrax in the AMI building at the Arvida Park of Commerce.

As federal officials were formalizing their decontamination and drainage procedures into a national response plan, AMI executives were unsuccessfully arguing that the federal government take over the building and clean it up. The supermarket tabloid publisher commissioned a cleanup cost estimate from an environmental consulting firm, which advised AMI in April that no toxic waste site in the country would accept anthrax waste.

The FBI declined to comment on the cleanup methods. But Woika said all the runoff tested negative for anthrax before it was drained into a sewer on the AMI site on Broken Sound Boulevard. On the FBI's "advice," Woika said, he could not show the test results.

"Generally, there's some secrecy involved with the FBI investigation, or what's construed as the investigation," Woika said.

After last year's anthrax attacks, the federal government moved quickly to develop new bioterrorism protocols in case of future attacks. Boca Raton, the site of the nation's first attack at the AMI building, became the de facto testing ground for many of those new techniques.

Inside the three-story AMI building, the FBI prepared to plot three-dimensional maps to trace the distribution patterns of anthrax throughout the 68,000 square foot office.

Outside, the AMI site would serve as a laboratory to test the "containment, disinfection and discharge of suspected anthrax contaminated water, including protocols and standards," Woika said in an April memo to City Manager Leif Ahnell.

"The AMI incident initiated the need for a national policy," Woika wrote, "and the City of Boca Raton's actions in this incident is being used as their model."

The FBI, assisted by scientists from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, entered the building more than 550 times, removing nearly 5,000 pieces of evidence, including more than 800 letters contaminated by anthrax.

Each time the teams emerged, they entered a setup resembling a shower and were hosed down, Woika said. The runoff was collected in tanks of 500 gallons and 1,000 gallons in capacity. The liquid was disinfected with high concentrations of chlorine.

In all, Woika said, less than 3,500 gallons were collected and disinfected during the search, which was conducted from Aug. 27 to Sept. 8. The city's water treatment plant processes about 15 million gallons of water a day, Woika said.

The vats, all testing negative for anthrax, were slowly drained into a sewer, Woika said.

Dr. Larry Bush, the JFK Medical Center physician who treated Sun photo editor Bob Stevens (case 5) for anthrax, said the feds' disinfection system is safe for a number of reasons.

Very few anthrax spores would have stuck to the protective suits and come out of the building, said Bush, who is director of infectious diseases at the Atlantis hospital.

Those few spores would have been killed by the chlorine and then diluted into oblivion by millions of gallons of water.

Even if a spore survived and was somehow swallowed, it would have been ineffective against humans, he said.

"You'd have to swallow a huge amount of spores -- thousands to hundreds of thousands," to get sick from gastrointestinal anthrax, Bush said. Stevens died Oct. 5 of inhalational anthrax.

Anthrax spores exist naturally, in the soil and in the wool of sheep and in goat hair, but natural inhalation of anthrax leading to illness is rare.

Whether inhalation or gastrointestinal anthrax, it would take such large quantities to create conditions for one spore to be able to reproduce itself faster than the body's immune system can counter-attack, said Martin Hugh-Jones, a veterinary epidemiologist at Louisiana State University.

Hugh-Jones said dumping the anthrax runoff in city sewers is "no problem."

"Yeah, put it in your flower bed and get some fertilizer out of it," he said.

Staff researcher Krista Pegnetter contributed to this story.