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Last Updated

15 Mar 2003

Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, March 15, 2003

Plan aims to use pesticide to kill deadly anthrax

By Kathy Bushouse, Staff Writer

BOCA RATON -- Just weeks after testing a bug-killing gas on anthrax-like bacteria, a University of Florida scientist is in talks to use his anthrax-destroying method on the real thing .

UF entomologist Rudolph Scheffrahn last month filled a Davie trailer with methyl bromide gas to test its effectiveness in killing three types of bacterium similar to Bacillus anthracis. Scheffrahn said Friday he has tentative plans to run a similar test in a laboratory at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

He should know early next week whether he and his partner, Lauderhill exterminator Mark Weinberg, will make the trip in mid-April.

If they do the experiment, Scheffrahn said, it would give definitive answers about whether methyl bromide can be used to clean up anthrax-contaminated buildings.

"That's really the acid test," Scheffrahn said. "We could test with other spores until we're blue in the face but obviously we want to show that methyl bromide can kill the real thing."

Illinois Institute of Technology has been contacted about the anthrax test but details aren't firm yet, school spokesman Phil Rozen said Friday.

The news that Scheffrahn might take on anthrax spores comes as he awaits full reports on the Feb. 28 Davie test to determine if methyl bromide could kill bacteria without damaging equipment inside an enclosed area.

If it is successful, Scheffrahn and Weinberg say, methyl bromide gas could be used to clean up the anthrax-laden American Media Inc. building in Boca Raton. It has been quarantined since tabloid photo editor Bob Stevens (case 5) died of inhalation anthrax in October 2001.

Preliminary test results show that two of the three types of bacterium -- including those that most closely resemble anthrax -- were killed, Scheffrahn said.

While 99.9 percent of spores from the third type of bacteria were killed, having even a few spores survive the methyl bromide gas would be considered a failure, he added. Scheffrahn's initial theories about how the spores survived: low concentrations of methyl bromide or problems with the strips that held the spores.

Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies are closely monitoring Scheffrahn's work to see how methyl bromide could be used to clean up buildings contaminated with anthrax spores.

Jeff Kempter, senior adviser for the anti-microbials division of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, declined to comment until he had seen seen written reports on the Feb. 28 test.

Scheffrahn and Weinberg contend they could use methyl bromide to rid the quarantined AMI offices of anthrax for $2 million, one-tenth of the federal government's estimate of $20 million.

That is possible, they say, because methyl bromide is cheaper, easier and faster to deploy than chlorine dioxide, the chemical used to rid post offices and the contaminated offices of U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-N.D., of anthrax. Also, Scheffrahn said, methyl bromide won't corrode or damage electronics and other office equipment as the more-corrosive chlorine dioxide does.

Congress approved a measure last month for the federal government to take ownership of the AMI building and shoulder cleanup expenses. AMI has about 12 months to officially offer to sell the property to government. If the government determine the private sector cannot dispose of hazardous waste from the cleanup and the building is declared a public health hazard, the purchase will proceed.

Cleanup estimates for AMI have ranged from $7 million from a private firm to the federal government's $20 million.