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Last Updated

11 Dec 2002

Source: The Hartford Courant, April 26, 2002.

Anthrax Found At Postal Facility

Officials Say No Risk To Public, Believe Spores Are Remnants Of Fall Contamination

By DAVE ALTIMARI And JACK DOLAN, Courant Staff Writers

More than six months after anthrax-contaminated mail passed through a distribution center in Wallingford, health officials have discovered more of the deadly pathogen there.

Three out of 103 samples taken Sunday from the Southern Connecticut Processing & Distribution Center tested positive for anthrax, state Department of Public Health officials said Thursday. The plant is Connecticut's largest postal facility, handling nearly all of the state's incoming mail.

Health officials emphasized Thursday evening that there is no threat to the public. Postal officials said they are not going to close the facility, will not recommend any additional antibiotic treatment for employees and do not foresee any disruption of mail service.

Postal officials were meeting with union officials and state health officials to decide how and when to decontaminate the building.

"We've agreed that people will be allowed to work elsewhere if they want to," said John Dirzius, president of the American Postal Workers Union Greater Connecticut Local. "Our workers deserve the same opportunity as the senators and the people who work for them who were allowed to work elsewhere while the [[Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.] was cleaned."

The anthrax in Wallingford was discovered on the ceiling over three of the four sorting machines that originally tested positive last fall after mail believed to have been cross-contaminated by letters to Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., passed through them. Investigators believe a piece of that mail belonged to 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren (case 23) of Oxford, who died of inhalation anthrax in November.

"These seem to be residual spores from the contamination last October, not a new thing. And that's not a total surprise. We don't feel that this presents an immediate threat to the postal workers or the public," said Department of Public Health spokesman William Gerrish.

Health department officials believe the spores have been lying dormant since the original anthrax incident. The challenge, Gerrish said, is cleaning them up without making them airborne in the process. Such "aerosolized" anthrax spores can cause the potentially deadly inhaled form of the disease.

The spores are not believed to pose a public health risk in their dormant state, Gerrish said. "Certainly our surveillance systems haven't turned up any employees exhibiting any anthrax-like symptoms."

But there have been mysterious cases.

One woman, who is still in the Hospital of St. Raphael in New Haven, spent several days in intensive care with an unknown illness that left spots all over her face and body. She is a temporary postal employee who was working on the conveyor belts handling the mail during the time period officials believe Lundgren's mail passed through the system.

A member of the woman's family said she was tested for anthrax and the tests were negative. Doctors have not ruled out that she had some sort of bad reaction to Cipro, the antibiotic given to postal workers for two months in December.

Some postal workers believe they are being used as "laboratory rats," said one man who works on the sorting machines. He has worked on the machine that handled Lundgren's mail, and only a few weeks ago, dust from the ceiling fell on him.

"It's easy for people who don't have to work in here to say that there's no health risk, but for us, we wonder every day," the postal worker said Thursday night after learning about the positive tests.

The health department left the decision on whether to close the building to postal officials.

"Our recommendation will be that no employee be allowed to be in the area when they clean it," Gerrish said.

The health department has not yet recommended when the spores should be cleaned, or how.

Postal officials may have had an inkling of how the tests were going to turn out by Wednesday, when many third shift workers were told to clear out their lockers in case they had to work elsewhere.

They had been working on contingency plans for the past several days in the event the Wallingford regional office had to be closed, sources said. People will be transferred to Hartford, New Haven and Stamford if they are uncomfortable working in Wallingford.

Two post office buildings have been closed for thorough cleanings: the Brentwood facility in Washington, D.C., and the Hamilton Township facility just outside Trenton, N.J. The letters to Daschle and Leahy, containing billions of spores of anthrax, passed through both facilities.

In Wallingford, only letters suspected of being cross-contaminated went through the sorting machines. Still, officials closed and cleaned four of the machines in December. The facility remained open, but officials didn't test the ceiling or air duct areas.

Then last month at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conference, Dr. James Hadler, the state Department of Public Health's lead investigator on the anthrax case, announced that about three million anthrax spores had been found in December under one of those sorting machines in Wallingford. That information had not been released at the time of the finding.

Stunned postal union officials, who had been told for months that there were only trace amounts of anthrax in the Wallingford facility, requested the testing of the ceilings and air ducts.

An environmental contractor entered the building Sunday wearing full biohazard gear and took the samples using Hepavacs, small vacuums designed to catch the tiny spores. Workers were allowed to work elsewhere while the testing was done.

Postal officials called the testing routine spring cleaning. They have maintained all along that only trace amounts of anthrax went through the Wallingford facility and there was no health threat.

In recent interviews, health officials who have been involved in the Lundgren investigation said they wouldn't be surprised if more anthrax were found in Wallingford.

"The stuff is insidious," said Neil Lustig, health director of the Pomperaug district, the region where Lundgren lived.

"It took them five tests to find it the first time they tested at the postal facility," Lustig said.