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Last Updated

16 Jan 2003

Source: Washington Post, January 16, 2003

Tests Show No Anthrax at Postal Facility

Federal Reserve Mail Also Scrutinized, Officials Say

By Manny Fernandez and Monte Reel, Washington Post Staff Writers

Fears of anthrax contamination in a package sent to the Federal Reserve Board in Washington were defused yesterday by officials who said additional tests on samples taken from the item and extensive tests of the postal facility it passed through turned up negative.

The Northeast Washington facility, where U.S. government mail is sorted, reopened last night after being shut since Tuesday evening. Officials closed the facility after they were alerted Tuesday that a lab sample taken from a package sent to the Federal Reserve showed the possible presence of anthrax spores.

By yesterday evening, technicians had collected 86 surface and air samples from automated and manual sorting machines, as well as from mail sacks and cases in the facility in the 3000 block of V Street NE and tested them. All came back negative, postal officials said.

"We did very careful, targeted sampling on a variety of equipment . . . where Federal Reserve mail would have been handled," Thomas G. Day, the Postal Service's vice president for engineering, said at a news conference late in the day.

The sample that led to the alarm was sent on to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for additional testing, but Federal Reserve officials said last night that further testing of the sample showed no anthrax bacteria.

The incident evoked memories of Washington's anthrax scare about 15 months ago, a fearful time that some postal workers said remains ever present. "This is something we've been living with every day," said Donald Gholston, a postal driver who loaded bins of mail onto his truck outside his temporarily shuttered workplace yesterday. "It's constantly on our mind. I don't feel no better, no worse."

There are many safeguards in place for government mail, officials said. First, all Washington-bound federal government mail is irradiated at a facility in Bridgeport, N.J., a process designed to kill bacteria. Then the mail is processed by the Postal Service and sent in batches to various agencies. In the case of the Federal Reserve Board, the State Department and some other agencies, that mail is further tested. It was such a test that turned up the suspicious package.

Federal Reserve officials said the package never entered the Constitution Avenue NW headquarters. Spokeswoman Michelle Smith said there was nothing on the package to indicate "anything other than ordinary business mail."

Smith said that the package turned up Jan. 3 at one of the Federal Reserve's three mail processing facilities. Since the anthrax incidents, the agency has processed and screened its mail at trailers on federal property outside its headquarters.

After the small batch of mail tested positive for possible anthrax spores, another test was done Jan. 6 with the same result. Then the samples were sent to a private lab in North Carolina for further testing. Those results came back Tuesday afternoon, with one sample out of about 30 showing the possible presence of anthrax. Additional tests done on the sample at a state lab in North Carolina, under the guidance of the CDC, showed no signs of anthrax, Smith said. Officials said they hoped to get final results on the sample sent to Atlanta in a few days.

Day said there is no standard procedure for retesting the mail sent to various agencies and suggested that the lack of standardization among federal agencies that conduct their own testing might contribute to so-called false positive readings.

The Postal Service was taking extra precautions in closing the facility Tuesday, within hours after being notified of the possible presence of anthrax spores, Day said.

The Postal Service came under criticism from postal workers after its response to the October 2001 anthrax crisis. Many workers at the Brentwood Road facility complained that Capitol Hill staff members were evacuated and given antibiotics more swiftly than they were.

The advocacy group Judicial Watch sent a letter yesterday to Postmaster General John E. Potter saying that "should events at the V Street facility unfold as they did at Brentwood, we will pursue legal action" against any responsible parties. The group said in the letter that it represents hundreds of Brentwood Road postal workers.

Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, which represents postal clerks, drivers and maintenance employees, said that union officials were "pleased that they made the decision to close the facility."

"We think in situations like this they should err on the side of caution," Davidow said.

Day said several precautions were taken by postal officials concerning employees, including keeping V Street postal workers updated on the situation Tuesday and having a postal medical director check records on any recent employee illnesses.

The small batch of mail, including the suspicious package and about 15 others, remains quarantined in one of the trailers, said Smith of the Federal Reserve. Since Jan. 3, agency mail has been processed and screened at another trailer, and no other positives have turned up, she said. Agency officials also tested surfaces inside their headquarters, and nothing unusual was discovered, she said.

Positive readings for possible anthrax in mail at the agency have occurred twice before. In December 2001, a batch of mail showed a positive reading, but there was not enough of a sample to conduct more tests. In May 2002, samples taken from a batch of mail tested positive for the possible presence of anthrax, but further tests showed no live anthrax spores, Smith said.

Officials said the tests used on the agency's mail are a form of DNA analysis known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing. Day said the results taken from the V Street facility were processed at a lab at the Brentwood Road postal facility, also using PCR testing. He said the technicians there have worked with real anthrax spores over the past year, have conducted more than 15,000 samples and have "had no problem with false positives."