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Last Updated

20 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, July 30, 2002.

No Problems In Test-Run Of Brentwood Fumigation

By Monte Reel, Washington Post Staff Writer

Chlorine dioxide began flowing into a tent inside the Brentwood postal plant yesterday about 10:45 a.m., and outside the quarantined building all was hot, sunny and quiet -- exactly how authorities had hoped it would be.

The air quality monitors beyond the yellow police tape that surrounded the plant on Brentwood Road NE picked up no traces of leakage. Police officers stationed around the building were reporting no problems, and the sun -- a natural safety backup capable of quickly breaking down chlorine dioxide -- was relentless.

Inside, said Theodore Gordon, senior deputy director of the D.C. Health Department, "everything is working perfectly... . It seems like we're doing it right so far."

Yesterday's fumigation of the 29,000-cubic-foot tent was designed to test equipment that is scheduled for use in a full-scale fumigation of the 17.5-million-cubic-foot plant later this summer. The building has been closed since anthrax-tainted letters passed through the plant on their way to Capitol Hill last fall. Two Brentwood employees died of inhalation anthrax.

The chlorine dioxide, which kills anthrax spores, was mixed inside the building yesterday morning and pumped into the tent, where it was to remain for 12 hours at a constant temperature and humidity level. The tent had been erected over three mail-processing machines, including one that handled the tainted letters. It took workers until 12:20 p.m. to get the temperature and humidity to the point where the gas could be most effective, and the 12-hour countdown did not begin until then.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency analyzed air outside the plant for any possible traces of leakage, and postal officials had announced that they would halt the test if chlorine dioxide was detected at levels exceeding 25 parts per million.

But Gordon said none of the chemical was found. "Absolutely nothing," Gordon said.

The fumigation was scheduled to begin about 9 a.m., but the gas wasn't pumped into the building until 10:45 a.m.

"We were just double-checking, making sure everything was in place and secure," Gordon said.

Officials said it probably would take several weeks to completely analyze the results of yesterday's test. When the gassing is done, workers will remove 900 spore strips that have been placed around the area to show whether it worked. If so, full-scale tests probably would begin in late August, Gordon said. If not, workers would retest until it did.

About 2,000 pounds of chlorine dioxide was to be used to fumigate the entire building; yesterday's test used about five pounds.

Marcos Aquino, a scene coordinator for the EPA, said the agency's air quality monitors were calibrated to detect chlorine dioxide outside the building at levels as low as 13 parts per trillion -- about 2,000 times less than the levels that would have halted yesterday's operation. Aquino said that people can be exposed to the gas at levels of 100 parts per million for eight hours without ill effects. At higher levels, the gas can cause breathing difficulty, watery eyes and rashes.

The hot sun was useful, Aquino said. If any gas leaked -- and officials said it did not -- the ultraviolet rays of the sun would have neutralized the gas instantaneously, Aquino said. At night, he said it takes longer, but the gas still breaks down.