HAMILTON OFFICE BIN CONTAINED ANTHRAX 



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Last Updated

12 Nov 2002

Source: The Star-Ledger, November 3, 2001.

Hamilton office bin contained anthrax

BY DUNSTAN McNICHOL STAR-LEDGER STAFF

A Hamilton Township accountant most likely contracted a case of skin anthrax from mail delivered to her office last month, state officials said yesterday as they revealed they found traces of the potentially deadly bacteria on a company mail bin she used.

In light of the latest development, health officials now fully accept the prospect of "cross-contamination" -- the notion that anthrax-laced letters could have polluted parts of the postal system and turned other pieces of mail into health threats.

"That would be the best bet at this point," said state epidemiologist Eddy Bresnitz. He said there was no evidence that the infected accountant was exposed to a letter filled with anthrax.

Three anthrax-laced letters are known to have passed through the Trenton regional mail processing center in Hamilton Township on their way to New York and Washington.

However, Bresnitz and other officials downplayed any ongoing risk from the mail.

"As time goes by, there's less and less risk," said Bresnitz. "If you believe cross-contamination is a real possibility, and there's been any letters contaminated, we still haven't seen many cases even in the peak period of cross-contamination."

Federal health officials, however, said it is impossible to declare the mail system safe until the person responsible for placing anthrax into the mail has been identified and apprehended, eliminating the chance that another letter will be mailed.

FBI agents, meanwhile, raided a Trenton apartment yesterday morning and detained a man on immigration charges. Agents removed undisclosed articles from the man's home on Olden Avenue. Authorities would not identify the man, and it was not clear if the raid was directly related to the anthrax investigation.

"The search was conducted based on information that was developed in the course of the anthrax investigation," said FBI spokeswoman Sandra Carroll, saying the action was taken as the result of a tip. "You are going to see more of these types of situations, people being detained," she said.

Since the three known anthrax letters passed through the Trenton sorting center -- two on Sept. 18 and one on Oct. 9 -- six people who live or work in that part of the state have been diagnosed with anthrax.

Preliminary tests on a seventh suspected case -- a Delaware man who works at the mail processing center in Bellmawr in Camden County and had developed a suspicious infection -- indicate he does not have anthrax, authorities said yesterday. Tests of the Bellmawr facility also showed no evidence of anthrax contamination, and postal officials re-opened that plant late yesterday.

"We will begin processing mail tonight," said postal spokesman Ray Daiutolo Sr. "We're very happy."

Bresnitz said laboratory analysis is ongoing on skin samples from seven other state residents with symptoms that could indicate anthrax exposure.

The Hamilton accountant, Linda Burch, developed skin anthrax on her forehead Oct. 17. She has been treated with antibiotics and is expected to make a full recovery. Her illness troubled health officials because it was the first in New Jersey involving someone who did not work for the postal system.

Bresnitz said evidence of anthrax was discovered in a metal mail bin where postal workers deposit the office mail for Civale, Silvestri, Alfieri, Martin & Higgins, the Hamilton accounting firm where Burch works. It was one of seven spots within the office tested for anthrax after Burch was diagnosed with the disease Monday.

Acting state Health Commissioner Dr. George DiFerdinando Jr. said the bin showed evidence of a significant anthrax contamination. He contrasted that with the minuscule amount of anthrax found last week on a mail bin at the main Princeton post office in West Windsor. That post office has been closed since Oct. 26, after further testing uncovered traces of anthrax on a shelf where the contaminated bin had been stored.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, expects to complete environmental testing this weekend on most of the 44 other regional post offices that send mail to or take mail from the Hamilton processing facility.

Since officials learned three weeks ago that the Trenton center had handled three anthrax-laced letters, they have slowly expanded the range of areas they believe could have been contaminated.

After first minimizing the danger of any exposure even to workers who directly processed the letters in Hamilton, officials two weeks ago acknowledged the letter had contaminated equipment and workers there.

After discovering anthrax infected a mail carrier in West Trenton and contaminated the West Windsor office, officials decided to sample every post office in the Trenton region.

State officials are now seeking federal aid to test every post office in the state.

Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco is scheduled to meet with Tom Ridge, the U.S. director of the Office of Homeland Security, at the White House Monday to press his demand for increased federal aid and services in the face of the anthrax crisis.

The most concentrated evidence of anthrax has been inside the Hamilton plant, which has been closed since Oct. 18. Tests for anthrax returned positive in 34 of 102 locations sampled within the sprawling facility.

Yesterday DiFerdinando re-emphasized the need for every worker in that Hamilton facility to report to a doctor for anthrax treatment and to take antibiotics for at least 60 days. He said hospitals report seeing about 60 postal workers a day who are reporting for their first check-up since DiFerdinando ordered them to begin taking antibiotics two weeks ago.

Officials say they fear the anthrax contained in the letters puffed up into the air as the letters shot through automated sorting equipment in Hamilton, and that the airborne spores of anthrax could have lodged in the lungs of any workers in the facility around the time they passed through.

In the 1970s, when anthrax anthrax was released into the air in Russia, DiFerdinando noted, some people exposed to the bacteria did not show their first symptoms until 47 days after they had breathed in the anthrax. Taking antibiotics kills the anthrax spores, preventing those who have inhaled it from developing the often-fatal disease.

Officials did not recommend antibiotics or any other precautionary measures for Burch's co-workers at the accounting firm, saying the contamination appears limited.

James Alfieri, one of the partners in the accounting firm, said Burch is doing well and will likely be back at work within two weeks. He said a receptionist who handles most of the office's mail has not shown any signs of anthrax.

Five doors away from the accounting firm, in the offices of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4th Dist.), tests found no evidence of anthrax contamination.

Smith and DiFrancesco pressed efforts yesterday to give residents a grace period from bill collectors if their mail service has been disrupted by closings of post offices.

"We do not want residents to be penalized by late fees for mail delivery situations beyond their control," said DiFrancesco. "'Many credit issuers made special accommodations to help those affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the state is asking the credit companies to expand that forbearance to the citizens of New Jersey who are unable to receive or send mail in a timely manner due to the closure of mail facilities in central New Jersey."

Smith has proposed legislation that would prohibit federally regulated banks, phone companies and other businesses from penalizing customers whose payments were delayed by anthrax.

Staff writers Sue Livio, Kate Coscarelli, Donna Leusner and Anthony Twyman contributed to this report.