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Last Updated

14 Feb 2003

Source: Washington Post, December 4, 2001.

More Mail Believed to Be Tainted

Anthrax Risk to Recipients Is Probably Small, Officials Say

By Rick Weiss and Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post Staff Writers

Tens of thousands of pieces of mail may have become contaminated with anthrax spores that leaked out of letters sent to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), posing a poorly understood but probably small health risk to countless postal recipients, federal officials said yesterday.

Most of those letters have long since been delivered to their final destinations, officials said. So although it's possible that some cross-contaminated letters still pose a risk, it's likely that anyone who was going to get the disease from their mail would already have become ill.

"It's an uncomfortable situation," Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledged. "But with each passing day, the lack of further cases occurring is grounds for diminished risk."

Nonetheless, investigators said they were considering whether it might be worthwhile to contact those people known by the Postal Service to have received mail that was processed close on the heels of the letters to Leahy and Daschle. And in New Jersey, Rep. Chris Smith (R) said he was wrangling with the FBI over his desire to tell individual constituents whether they are on that list -- information he believes the government owes citizens but that others fear could stir unnecessary fears.

Health officials yesterday stopped short of saying that cross-contaminated mail was responsible for the two most mysterious fatal cases of inhalational anthrax to date, those of New York hospital worker Kathy Nguyen and Ottilie Lundgren, an elderly Connecticut widow. "For such a low level of exposure to cause inhalational anthrax would be extraordinary," Koplan said.

No spores have been found in either victim's home, workplace or other local environs. The best clues so far: A single spore was recently found on an envelope that may have come in contact with Lundgren's mail while it was en route to a Connecticut man in a nearby town. And a piece of mail that followed quickly behind the Leahy letter through a Trenton mail distribution center was delivered to a nearby address on Nguyen's route -- suggesting that the letter could have picked up spores from the Leahy letter and then passed a few to Nguyen's mail, perhaps in a carrier's mailbag.

Officials yesterday released new details relating to that Bronx coincidence. A post office printout said that one letter -- processed two minutes after the Leahy letter and 18 minutes before the Daschle letter -- moved through the Trenton sorting machine and went to Art Auto Body, at 1207 Whitlock Ave. in the Bronx. That shop is just around the corner from Nguyen's apartment.

The FBI went through every letter in the body shop looking in vain for an envelope postmarked in Trenton, said Luis Vidal, an employee who helps run the body shop. The New York City Department of Health has taken environmental samples, but the analysis is not yet complete.

Vidal said health officials told the body shop employees they would be offered antibiotics if any of the tests is positive for anthrax spores. But already, he said, workers there are worried that their mail may have been tainted with anthrax.

"It gets a little scary when you see everything that's happening," Vidal said.

That's exactly the kind of fear that federal officials say they would like to avoid if possible. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson yesterday noted that the only cases of anthrax documented to have been contracted from cross-contaminated mail were cutaneous anthrax (cases 4 and 18), a more easily curable variant of the disease.

Officials have repeatedly recommended that people wash their hands after handling mail. Yesterday Koplan said that if anyone is especially nervous about opening their mail -- perhaps because they are old or have immune system problems -- they could consider asking someone else to open it for them if it makes them feel "more comfortable."

Sorting machines process as many as 35,000 pieces of mail an hour, said Postal Inspection Service spokesman Dan Mihalko, and inspectors have a printout of 100,000 addresses that passed through the machines within 90 minutes of the Senate letters. At the request of Conn. Gov. John Rowland, they also are trying to track down all 300 or so letters routed to Connecticut that were sorted any time on Oct. 9, the day the Senate letters passed through the Trenton distribution center.

Mihalko said it's not clear if it would be worthwhile to interview recipients of letters that were processed in close proximity to the Senate letters and which, therefore, may have been mailed from the same location. The goal would be to see if each recipient can recall the letter and who it was from, then interview the senders to see where they mailed those letters.

"Did they put it in a drop box? Leave it in outgoing mail? There may be a pattern," Mihalko said. "It's possible we may be able to determine where the Daschle and Leahy letters were mailed from."

But because mail gets so thoroughly mixed from the start, he said, such an investigation is could easily could provide no answers.

New Jersey state epidemiologist Eddy A. Bresnitz said yesterday that a review of all deaths since Sept. 1 in search of missed cases of anthrax turned up no suspicious fatalities. That's a gratifying result, he said, because all of central New Jersey received mail from the Hamilton Township facility that postmarked the Daschle and Leahy letters on Oct. 9.

"This says to me there's a very low risk of an individual getting anthrax through secondarily or even a third generation of contaminated mail," Bresnitz said.

However, Rep. Smith, whose district includes Hamilton, said that despite the low risk, people whose mail was processed about the same time as the Daschle and Leahy letters should be notified. The FBI told Smith today that it will not release the list, his spokesman said, but the congressman is continuing to press for the names.

"The FBI told us that there's no value to telling the recipients. ... They think cross-contamination has been well-documented enough that people are taking precautions," said Smith's spokesman, Nick Manetto. "But we are saying that if they have the list, why not use it to its fullest advantage -- not to be alarmist, but so that people know to be on the lookout, especially if they have lung ailments that make them susceptible?"

"Their view is that enough time has passed that there should be no more exposures," Manetto said. "What if someone picks up a letter tomorrow that's been sitting unopened since October 11th? We're not as comfortable that the window of danger has been closed."

Staff writer Dale Russakoff contributed to this report.