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Last Updated

20 May 2003

Source: Associated Press, May 20, 2003

Scientists Suggest Redoing Anthrax Tests

By JESSE J. HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Post offices that were tested for anthrax using dry cotton swabs should be tested again because that method isn't the best way of detecting the potentially lethal spores, scientists told a House subcommittee Monday.

In 2001 postal officials tested the Wallingford, Conn., postal facility for anthrax with dry cotton swabs and found nothing. But when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested the facility using wet wipes and a high-efficiency particulate air vacuum, it found more than 3 million anthrax spores.

Dry swabs are an inefficient way of testing for anthrax and there is no guarantee that other anthrax spores weren't missed if that method was used in other facilities, scientists told the House Government Reform subcommittee.

The ones that should be retested are "those facilities deemed free of anthrax based on a single dry swab," said Keith Rhodes, the chief technologist for the General Accounting Office's Center for Technology and Engineering. "That's the least effective form" of testing, he said.

While no one should jump to the conclusion that there is anthrax in those facilities, "we really don't know whether those facilities are clean," said Dr. Richard Hamilton, a Johns Hopkins University professor and head of its Dermatology, Allergy and Clinical Immunology Reference Laboratory.

Levels between 8,000 and 10,000 spores are considered harmful; Washington's Brentwood facility, which was shut down for cleaning, had levels between 8,700 and 2 million.

The initial Wallingford testing was ordered after the death of Ottilie Lundgren (case 23), a 94-year-old woman who died of inhalation anthrax in November 2001. Investigators believe Lundgren inhaled anthrax spores, perhaps after ripping up junk mail that had passed through the Wallingford facility.

Postal officials said they did what they could to protect their workers and customers.

"Both the CDC and the Connecticut Department of Public Health indicated that no medical intervention was deemed necessary as a result of these tests because of the length of time since the suspected cross-contaminated letter passed through the facility and the fact that no employees became ill," said Thomas Day, vice president of engineering at the United States Postal Service.