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Last Updated

10 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, December 3, 2001.

Bronx Letter May Hold Clues to Anthrax Death

Spores Also Found in Conn. Postal Facility

By Ellen Nakashima and Dale Russakoff, Washington Post Staff Writers

A letter apparently mailed to an address near the Bronx home of anthrax victim Kathy Nguyen passed through the same New Jersey postal sorting machine within seconds of the anthrax-laced letter sent to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), officials said yesterday.

In addition, trace amounts of anthrax were found at a postal facility in Wallingford, Conn., that sorts mail for Oxford, where an elderly woman died of inhalational anthrax last month.

Both discoveries strengthen the theory that both women contracted the disease through cross-contaminated mail. Further evidence to support this theory could solve the two mysterious deaths in the anthrax attacks this fall. It also could raise the possibility that anthrax may be contracted much more easily than had been thought.

But health officials cautioned that the theory remains unproven, and that even if there is a risk, it would be extremely small.

The Bronx letter was postmarked Oct. 9, the same date anthrax-tainted letters sent to Leahy and to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) passed through the sorting machine in Trenton within 43 minutes of each other. According to an analysis of printouts of address-bearing bar codes on mail that went through the sorter, the Bronx letter and the Leahy letter entered the machine within seconds of each other, officials said.

Law enforcement and health officials who visited two businesses at the Bronx address yesterday did not find evidence of the letter, whose presence was first reported yesterday by the New York Daily News. Workers there could not recall having received any mail with a Trenton postmark.

Nonetheless, "the mere fact of a letter having gone through within minutes [of the Leahy letter] made it interesting enough for us and law enforcement to go to the address," said Sandra Mullin, a spokeswoman for the New York City Health Department.

None of the workers there had symptoms of cutaneous or inhalational anthrax, and there had not been any unusual employee absences, Mullin said. Officials went to the two businesses because there initially was some ambiguity about the address, she said.

The businesses were "close enough" to Nguyen's apartment at 1031 Freeman St. to be worth pursuing, Mullin said. "I would call them 'proximate,' " she said, adding that they were tested for anthrax contamination.

If the letter can be recovered, it might shed light on the puzzling case of Nguyen, 61, who died of inhalational anthrax in a Manhattan hospital Oct. 31. Nguyen's death and that of Ottilie Lundgren, 94, of Oxford, Conn., remain the most mysterious cases since the anthrax scare began in October. Of the 11 people who developed inhalational anthrax, the women have not been directly linked with contaminated mail.

Medical experts said yesterday that even if the piece of mail is located, it may be difficult to prove it was related to Nguyen's infection. "It's information, and I'm not sure what it tells us," said D.A. Henderson, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services and an expert on bioterrorism.

Henderson said he doubted that enough spores could travel from a highly contaminated piece of mail, such as the Daschle or Leahy letters, to lodge on other pieces and then cause inhalational anthrax in a recipient. "It just seems very highly unlikely," he said.

But Philip Brachman, an anthrax expert and former official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said CDC investigators apparently suspect mail as the cause of the women's infections because they have been unable to identify any other possible source of exposure.

"So now we have these letters," he said. "Well, it might be. We are also working under the hypothesis that maybe the dosage that these two people got was very small."

Investigators retrieved the Bronx address from a computer printout of addresses on mail that passed through the Trenton sorting machine within seconds of the Leahy letter. Mullin said that according to postal officials, the Bronx letter preceded the Leahy letter in the sorter, but postal officials could not confirm that last night.

It was from that same printout that postal officials last week identified a letter that had been mailed to a home in Seymour, Conn., about a mile from Lundgren's home. That letter had a small amount -- one spore -- of anthrax, officials said.

Yesterday, trace amounts of anthrax bacteria also were found at the Wallingford postal facility, where mail bound for Oxford and Seymour is sorted, postal officials reported. They said the public should not panic about trace amounts that were deposited nearly two months ago.

Last month, Lundgren became the fifth person to die of inhalation anthrax. She suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition that may have depressed her ability to fight off the anthrax infection, CDC officials said last week. Connecticut health authorities are investigating more than 100 deaths that could be attributed to infectious diseases since mid-September in Oxford and eight surrounding towns to see whether any fit the profile of someone who may have died of anthrax inhalation.

Nguyen did not have any lung disease, officials said. That makes her death all the more puzzling.

A postal official was circumspect about the possible link with Nguyen. "For her mail to have been contaminated, it would have to have gone from the Leahy letter to the second letter to something going to Kathy Nguyen," the official said. "I can see it cross-contaminating something, but then to have enough power to kill somebody through inhalational anthrax, gee."

New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said none of the reports shed new light on Nguyen's case. "There still are no new pieces of evidence in the investigation of Ms. Nguyen's death," he told reporters.

Meanwhile, crews from the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday completed their cleanup of offices in the Hart Senate Office Building and collected samples for laboratory tests. Workers used toxic chlorine dioxide gas to kill bacterial spores in Daschle's office suite and liquid or foam decontaminant in the offices of 11 other senators.

Workers pumped the gas into Daschle's suite early Saturday morning and left it in place for more than 20 hours. They used sodium bisulfite, another chemical, to remove the gas and conducted tests yesterday to ensure that no trace remained. U.S. Capitol Police spokesman Dan Nichols said yesterday that it is not known when the Hart Building will reopen.

Environmental tests have yielded no trace of anthrax at Nguyen or Lundgren's home, or at Nguyen's workplace at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. No sign of anthrax was found at the church, hair salon or other businesses Lundgren often visited.

Staff writers Susan Okie and Rick Weiss contributed to this report.