Nearly a week elapsed between the discovery of an anthrax-tainted letter in U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) office in the Hart Senate Office Building and testing at the Brentwood Road postal facility that handles all mail for the District. In that time, two D.C. postal workers fell ill and eventually died of inhalation anthrax. And hundreds, even thousands more people were potentially exposed, people now being treated with antibiotics. Had the investigators combating this latest round of terrorism thought to test the facility sooner, those two workers may have received treatment for the disease that could have saved their lives. The delay in environmental testing in USPS facilities needlessly put the public and postal workers at risk.
Anthrax is not passed through person-to-person contagion but results from contact with anthrax bacteria or bacteria spores. These spores are unusually hardy crystallized forms of the bacteria that can live in contaminated soil for decades and withstand temperatures and conditions normal bacteria cannot. This means a contaminated surface in a mail processing facility can pass those spores on to other pieces of mail or to workers handling the mail. A contaminated letter can slough off spores onto other letters.
The spores are incredibly tiny, just a few microns in size. By comparison, grains of talcum powder are 30 to 40 microns. While experts believed envelopes containing anthrax first had to be open for the bacteria to spread, they were wrong. According to CNN, the pores in most paper are much larger than the anthrax spores – about 100 microns – meaning anthrax in a tainted envelope comes through the paper of the envelope itself.
This is information that was available when the first letter arrived at Daschle’s office, but is now coming to light. Health officials did do a lot of things right by activating the national pharmaceutical stockpile, sending teams of specially trained doctors to infection sites and widely distributing antibiotic medication. But perhaps investigators asked the wrong questions at the beginning of the outbreak and missed key information regarding the route the tainted letters took. Regardless, more thorough and comprehensive planning for anthrax and other forms of biomedical attacks in the District is needed.