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Last Updated

25 Aug 2003

Source: Palm Beach Post (Florida), September 15, 2002.

Anthrax at AMI traveled via copiers

By John Murawski, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

BOCA RATON -- FBI investigators believe photocopy machines helped spread anthrax throughout the American Media Inc. headquarters last year before the building was quarantined.

While testing the three-story building for anthrax spores, investigators found that every copy machine in the building -- more than two dozen in all -- tested positive for anthrax, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

The anthrax is believed to have gotten into the copiers from reams of copy paper that had trapped airborne spores in the company's mail room, where the paper was stored.

The FBI's theory helps explain for the first time the presence of anthrax throughout the 68,000-square-foot building.

Since AMI photo editor Bob Stevens (case 5) died last October and AMI mail room employee Ernesto Blanco (case 7) was hospitalized, officials surmised the anthrax might have been spread by a rolling mail cart used to deliver the letters to AMI departments.

More important, the FBI's discoveries will lay the foundation for an emerging branch of science that studies anthrax dispersal in public buildings.

Anthrax previously had been studied as a livestock disease or in the context of biochemical warfare on the battlefield.

"No doubt, whatever they discover will be significant, because it will be a onetime opportunity to see what happened," said Dr. Keith Ward, program manager in the Biomolecular and Biosystems Group at the federal Office of Naval Research in Virginia. "The problem is we don't have a lot of experience with this sort of thing."

The FBI search operation, which began Aug. 27 and ended last Sunday, was the first comprehensive search of the supermarket tabloid's publishing office, the FBI said.

The Environmental Protection Agency last year had detected trace residues of anthrax in 84 spots in the building in a partial search.

One of the FBI's objectives this time was to map the entire AMI building for anthrax distribution.

The agency said it would use newly developed forensic techniques to determine how the anthrax spread through the building once it was brought in.

Officials surmised last year that anthrax entered the building in at least two letters, because of anthrax contamination at two different post offices that served the building.

Once investigators realized the copy machines were contaminated, they traced the anthrax back to its point of origin: an open storage area in AMI's first-floor mail room.

Apparently, someone in the mail room opened a letter containing anthrax, which dispersed the microscopic particles. The spores settled on the company's supply of copy paper.

Anthrax spores tend to stick to surfaces upon settling, said Palm Beach County Health Department spokesman Tim O'Connor. The spores can detach from surfaces, but loosening the particles requires sufficient force.

This adhesive quality was described to local health officials by anthrax experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during last year's anthrax crisis in Palm Beach County.

"Once it falls, it stays," O'Connor said. "It was stuck to the keyboard in Stevens' office. It stuck in the machinery that sorts the mail in post offices."

According to the FBI's reconstruction of events, AMI employees unwittingly distributed the clinging spores throughout the building when taking reams of copy paper to every department in the building, including AMI's library, executive offices and such publications as The National Enquirer, Weekly World News and National Examiner, which were published in the building.

When the copy paper was inserted into the machines and used to make copies, investigators believe, the spores dislodged and were "aerosolized" into the atmosphere by the whirring fans and other moving parts of the high-speed copiers.

FBI investigators, working with scientists from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, removed nearly 5,000 pieces of evidence during their search of the building.

The property seizures included more than 800 letters tainted with anthrax as well as shelves and folders from AMI's mail room.

However, no copy machines were removed from the building, according to a 34-page inventory the FBI filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Washington.

It's not clear whether the FBI took any items from the photocopying areas. The FBI's court filing lists two vacuum samples and six carpet samples, but it doesn't disclose where they came from. The court papers also list several broom heads and mop heads.