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Last Updated

22 Aug 2003

Source: New York Times, August 20, 2002.

Official Suspects Anthrax Is From Last Fall


New Jersey's health commissioner said yesterday that he suspected the anthrax spores found recently in a street-corner mailbox in downtown Princeton had been there several months, possibly since last fall.

But the commissioner, Dr. Clifton R. Lacy, cautioned that he and other state health experts did not know for certain when, or how, the spores got into the box.

Dr. Lacy said he thought it was unlikely that the spores had reached the box recently because there have been no reports of anthrax illnesses or anthrax-contaminated letters circulating in the mails for months.

"I think this is probably a remnant from last fall," Dr. Lacy said. But he added that federal investigators and scientists would make the final conclusion on that issue and on the source of the spores. "We'll let our law enforcement colleagues do their investigation," he said after a news conference in Trenton.

During the conference, he disclosed that 76 more samples collected in recent days from 38 mailboxes in New Jersey had all tested negative for anthrax. Those specimens are the last of about 700 specimens gathered in recent months by the Postal Service and the F.B.I. -- primarily from mailboxes in New Jersey -- and sent to the state health lab for analysis.

The only specimen that tested positive for anthrax came from the mailbox at the corner of Nassau and Bank Streets, opposite the Princeton University campus. The box has been sent to a federal laboratory for testing.

The 700 samples were collected as part of an federal investigation into the source of four anthrax-contaminated letters sent last fall to Senators Patrick J. Leahy and Tom Daschle, the NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, and The New York Post.

The federal authorities have said that all four letters passed through a sprawling mail processing and distribution center in Hamilton Township, near Princeton. That center was heavily contaminated with anthrax, and three postal workers there were stricken with the disease. The center has been closed for de-contamination since mid-October.

Mail from all the boxes involved in the current testing was processed at the Hamilton center before it was shut. Princeton-area mail is now processed regularly at a postal center in Edison and sometimes at a center in Eatontown, according to Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Postal Service.

Specimens from those two centers were gathered Sunday and are being analyzed for possible anthrax contamination from the Princeton mailbox. The results of that testing are expected tomorrow or Thursday.

"This is being done as a precautionary measure only, just to be on the safe side and make sure everything is clean," Mr. Quinn said.

Dr. Lacy, the health commissioner, said the state lab had been unable to determine whether the spores found in Princeton matched the Ames strain of anthrax that contaminated the four letters that passed through the Hamilton processing center. He said the Princeton specimen had been sent to a federal lab for further analysis.

The F.B.I. yesterday declined to comment on the investigation.