Anthrax Scare Shuts Down U.S. House

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 17, 2001 (ENS) - Anthrax fears spread across the U.S. Capitol today as more than 30 people tested positive for exposure to the disease causing spores. The House of Representatives announced that it will shut down its offices later today for five days of intensive screening to ensure that anthrax has not contaminated the House buildings.

At least 29 staff members from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office have tested positive for exposure to anthrax, as have two Capitol police officers, after the office received a letter containing a suspicious powder on Monday. The letter has since been confirmed to contain a highly refined, very dangerous form of anthrax spores.

Daschle

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"We will not let this stop the work of the Senate," said Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, at a news conference today. "We are going to work in concert with all of the medical personnel ... to address this."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said this morning that all House members will head home at the end of work today, to allow medical experts to sweep House offices for anthrax. No anthrax laden packages have so far been reported by House members.

In the Hart Office Building, 12 offices near Daschle's remained closed today as investigators checked for anthrax contamination. So far, anthrax spores have been found in the majority leader's office and mailroom.

Reports that the spores had spread into the Senate's ventilation system or transportation tunnels were denied today by Daschle and representatives from the office of Health and Human Services. Still, more than 1,500 Senate staffers have been tested for anthrax exposure, and many were given a three day supply of antibiotics as a preventative measure.

Daschle letter

The letter which brought anthrax to Senator Daschle's office carried the return address of a nonexistent school (Photo courtesy FBI)
"We're working together to make sure that ... our people are protected," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, noting that the Senate does not plan to shutter its offices as the House will later today.

"I think we've made the right decision to stay in session," Lott said. "There will be votes today and tomorrow."

So far, no one has become sick on Capitol Hill due to the anthrax spores. The nasal swabs which confirmed that dozens have been exposed to the spores does not indicate an actual infection, health officials pointed out.

In New York, anthrax has now been confirmed in a second location - this time in a Manhattan office used by New York Governor George Pataki. Pataki said no spores were found in a room used by state police, nor in the governor's executive offices.

The contamination in Pataki's offices follows the announcement last week that a letter containing anthrax was sent to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, and that one of Brokaw's assistants had contracted a skin infection caused by anthrax. The seven month old son of a producer at a second television network, ABC News, has also come down with cutaneous anthrax, apparently after a visit to the ABC offices.

Brokaw letter

Anthrax contaminated letter sent to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw (Photo courtesy FBI)
Investigators are looking at a possible connection between the anthrax laden letters sent to Senator Daschle and to Brokaw. Both letters carried a Trenton, New Jersey postmark, and both were hand lettered in block writing, slanting to the right.

Further tests by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) will be needed to confirm that the two letters came from the same person or persons, and that the anthrax spores were produced by the same source.

The FBI and the Department of Justice are also investigating possible links to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, who the Bush administration says was behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11. So far, no administration officials have announced positive evidence that bin Laden is behind the anthrax attacks.

But U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a briefing Tuesday, "When people send anthrax through the mail to hurt people and to invoke terror, it's a terrorist act."

In Florida, the more serious inhaled form of anthrax has killed one man, and a second individual has been exposed. Tests of coworkers of these two victims at American Media Incorporated reveal exposure to the disease, but not full blown infection.

"While organized terrorism has not been ruled out, so far we have found no direct link to organized terrorism," said FBI Director Robert Mueller. "There are, however, certain similarities between letters sent to NBC in New York and to Senator Daschle's office here in Washington. And we are now testing, analyzing and comparing powders from these letters to each other and to what we know from Florida."

Mueller and Ashcroft noted that dozens of other suspicious letters and packages have been tested and found to carry harmless powders. Many of these false alarms may have been deliberate hoaxes, the men said, and warned that such hoaxes will be prosecuted.

anthrax

Spores of anthrax bacteria (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)
"The Department of Justice will prosecute and punish with the full force of our laws, those who issue false anthrax threats or any other form of terrorist threat," Ashcroft said.

Among the more credible threats yet to be confirmed are a letter sent to the headquarters of the newspaper "USA Today" in Arlington, Virginia, where about a dozen people were evacuated earlier this week. The contents of the suspicious envelope have not yet been tested.

More than 100 abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood offices have received suspicious letters, which have not yet been conclusively tested. A preliminary test of one of the letters sent to a Florida clinic was positive for anthrax.

Since October 1, "the FBI has received more than 2,300 incidents or suspected incidents involving anthrax or other dangerous agents," Mueller said.

Other countries are not immune - Australia, Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Yugoslavia have also had false alarms of anthrax contamination.