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Last Updated

14 Jun 2003

Source: Washington Post,  December 1, 2001.

Conn. Letter Has Spores of Anthrax

Finding Boosts Theory of Cross Contamination

By Dale Russakoff and Rick Weiss, Washington Post Staff Writers

Investigators have found a trace of anthrax bacteria on the outside of a letter sent to a residence in Seymour, Conn., about 1 miles from the home of an elderly widow who mysteriously died of the disease last week.

The finding is the first solid clue in a medical puzzle that has baffled state and federal investigators, and it adds credence to the theory that Ottilie Lundgren, 94, contracted the disease from mail that had been cross-contaminated in the postal system.

"It continues to support the theory we've had all along that mail can be cross-contaminated by other mail that's laced with anthrax," Connecticut Gov. John Rowland said at a news conference in which he announced the test results.

It also raises anew the possibility that ordinary mail moving through the postal system may pose a serious health risk to some people -- though federal officials said they believed the risk to be extremely small.

The newly discovered Seymour letter -- a business letter sent to an estate liquidator who works from home -- was postmarked in Trenton, N.J., and dated Oct. 9 -- the same day that letters containing billions of deadly spores were mailed to Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). The Seymour letter bears postal system markings showing it moved through mail-sorting machinery in the Hamilton Township, N.J., processing facility about 10 seconds after the Leahy letter passed through, according to a Postal Service official.

An Army investigator has described the letter to Leahy, which has not yet been opened, as "leaking like a sieve."

About 100 local, state and federal investigators had combed Lundgren's home town of Oxford in vain for 10 days seeking clues to how the woman could have acquired pulmonary anthrax, to which she succumbed Nov. 21. She and Kathy Nguyen, 61, a New York City hospital worker who died Oct. 31, had been the only two of 11 people diagnosed with inhalational anthrax in the past two months whose cases could not be linked to contaminated mail.

Although the new finding indicates that spores reached Lundgren's general area via the mail, investigators have yet to explain exactly how anthrax spores got into her lungs. Hundreds of environmental samples of her home, her mail and places she frequented have tested negative for the bacteria. So did her mailbox, two weeks of mail found in her home and the table on which she stacked her mail, investigators said.

"How Mrs. Lundgren got infected, we still can't find that exact piece," Rowland said.

Lundgren's address did not show up on Postal Service printouts of addresses that received mail postmarked at Hamilton Township about the same time as the Leahy and Daschle letters were postmarked there, according to Postal Inspection Service spokesman Dan Mihalko. But one official said Lundgren's mail might have mingled with the Seymour letter and picked up spores from the contact.

Joxel Garcia, Connecticut's public health commissioner, emphasized that the Seymour letter bore only the slightest contamination. "Very, very small amounts -- one colony," he said.

Rowland took pains to say this is no reason to fear the mail.

"The trace amount was tiny," he said. "It was so insignificant that no one in contact with the letter could've gotten anthrax or even become ill."

"I'd say the mails are safe here in the state," said Jon Steele, a spokesman for the Postal Service in Connecticut. "Get on with your life. We are doing everything we can to make the mails safe."

However, Rowland noted that Lundgren, at 94, likely had a less robust immune system than most people. Health experts acknowledged yesterday that little is known about the minimum dose of anthrax spores that could cause disease, especially in older people.

What little is known about infectious doses of anthrax spores was derived mostly from monkey studies, said Jeffrey P. Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a telephone news conference yesterday.

Although those studies concluded that 50 percent of the population could expect to grow fatally ill from anthrax after exposure to about 8,000 spores, a smaller portion of the population could become equally sick from much smaller doses, Koplan and others said.

"There isn't any magic lower limit that I'm aware of," CDC epidemiologist Stephen Ostroff said.

William Patrick, who led the U.S. Army's effort to weaponize anthrax until the program was halted in 1969, said he was reconsidering his long-standing presumption that a person could not get pulmonary anthrax from a few spores on the outside of an envelope.

"I would never have thought that a letter contaminated on the outside would contain sufficient spores to cause inhalational anthrax," he said in a telephone interview. "It defies everything we ever learned. I'm absolutely flabbergasted."

One possibility raised by Patrick and Koplan is that the Ames strain of the anthrax-causing bacteria Bacillus anthracis may be more virulent than scientists had believed -- even more virulent, Patrick said, than the strain that the Army chose to use.

Asked what he made of the finding of the contaminated letter even after three separate series of environmental tests at the Seymour mail center had come up negative, Koplan said: "It says that where there is spotty or scant contamination ... it can be hard to isolate this stuff."

Asked whether that fact would make it difficult to know for certain whether the upcoming decontamination of the Hart Senate Office Building is complete, he replied that the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency "will make every effort and extra efforts to remove every potentially infectious spore from the building."

Investigators were led to Seymour by markings routinely put on letters. Most first-class mail processed by the Postal Service has an 11-digit bar code that enables sorting machines to separate mail down to the carrier route. The first five digits reveal which post office, the next four which block on which street, the final two which house.

Businesses, such as credit card companies, print the bar codes on the envelopes to win a discount. Other letters, even those with handwritten addresses, are scanned by an optical character reader, which prints a bar code on the piece. On the reverse side of most mail, a machine prints a faint orange bar that reveals the date, time, location and machine that sorted that piece of mail.

Then an automated sorter scans the destination information for each piece into a computer. It is that computer file that led investigators to 88 Great Hill Road in Seymour, home of John S. Farkas, 53.

After realizing the letters to Daschle and Leahy had transited through the Hamilton Township facility, it turns out, the Postal Inspection Service had generated a printout of thousands of addresses nationwide that received letters processed by that facility around the same time that those letters passed through.

Inspectors tested every local mail processing center through which those letters passed en route to their destinations, according to Postal Inspection Service spokesman Dan Mihalko.

A number of the addresses were in Seymour, which meant they passed through the Wallingford, Conn., processing center, which also processes Lundgren's mail. But no environmental samples from any of the centers, including Wallingford, had come up positive for anthrax spores, Mihalko said. Neither did samples taken at Lundgren's branch office in Seymour.

But because the strain of anthrax that killed Lundgren was indistinguishable from the one in the Leahy and Daschle letters, and because a number of addresses in Seymour showed up on the printout of letters that passed through Trenton, investigators from the CDC, the FBI and the state public health department remained open to the idea that Lundgren's mail may have picked up spores from second- or even third-hand contact with the deadly letters in Trenton.

When Farkas's address came up recently on the Hamilton Township scanner computer file, state health officials went to his house and retrieved the letter for testing.

"What we're finding is we have computers designed to sort mail that wind up giving us rich investigative information," said Jon Steele, the Postal Service's Northeast area vice president. Currently, that information is automatically erased after a period of time, McCarran said. It is unclear whether that procedure is being changed.

Investigators now know of at least 240 additional pieces of mail that were destined for Connecticut and passed through Hamilton some time after the Leahy and Daschle letters and before the plant was closed for cleaning two weeks later. They were meeting yesterday to determine how to proceed, Postal Inspection Service spokeswoman Paula McCarran said. One question is whether it would be worthwhile to interview people who received those letters.

"It's been a number of days. You don't know where the letters are," she said.

No information was available yesterday about specific pieces of mail that may have followed close behind the Leahy or Daschle letters. A mail sorter can process about 660 pieces of bar-coded mail per minute. That means there were about 100 pieces that could have passed through the sorter between the Seymour and the Leahy envelopes.

Farkas runs a small estate-liquidating business in Seymour, where he and his family live on a small farm. He works at home and opened the contaminated letter, which was addressed to his home business, McCarran said.

It did not bear similar lettering to the Leahy and Daschle letters, she said. She said inspectors have not seen the letter because the CDC has it. She does not think they have the results yet on what strain of anthrax it was.

Farkas has three daughters. His home has been extensively tested, postal officials said. He is not taking antibiotics, they said.

Farkas and Lundgren live on different postal routes with different zip codes, McCarran said. However, their mail is sorted in the Wallingford distribution center and sent to the Seymour post office for delivery.

On occasion, she said, mail for the two towns can be inadvertently mixed in the Seymour post office. There are two Great Hill roads -- one in Seymour and one in Oxford. Though they should be in separate mail streams, sometimes they are "commingled" by mistake, she said.

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima and research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.