Authorities Probe New D.C. Anthrax Scare


WASHINGTON -- Employees at a Navy mail facility were offered antibiotics Friday while authorities tried to confirm whether anthrax was found there.

The five workers are being offered the antibiotic ciprofloxacin as a precaution recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Cmdr. Conrad Chun, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon.

Officials closed the Navy mail-sorting offices and 11 other post offices in and around Washington Thursday after an automated alarm and one follow-up test indicated the possible presence of anthrax spores at the Navy facility.

Further testing was being performed Friday at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Chun said. An earlier follow-up test Thursday indicated 138 anthrax spores were present, Chun said.

Preliminary tests for anthrax often are inaccurate and there have been several false alarms since the still unsolved anthrax attacks in 2001.

The anthrax-by-mail attacks in late 2001 showed that inhaling only a few spores, in some cases, was enough to infect some people with the deadly disease. Five people died in those attacks, which also forced the shutdown and cleanup of postal facilities in Washington and elsewhere.

The sampling equipment at the Navy facility is among the measures meant to prevent a repeat of those 2001 attacks. Mail heading to Congress and federal agencies also is irradiated to kill any germs before it is delivered.

There was no indication that any of 1,200 to 1,500 other postal workers affected were exposed to anthrax, and Postal Service spokesman Azeezaly Jaffer said Thursday night that none had been offered antibiotics as a precaution.

Jaffer said authorities decided "out of an abundance of caution" to close the facilities and test them for any contamination.

Equipment that routinely monitors the air at the Naval Automated Processing Facility in the District of Columbia indicated Wednesday the presence of "small amounts of biological pathogens, possibly anthrax," said Rachael Sunbarger, a Homeland Security spokeswoman.

After the initial field test, eight air samples were sent for testing to a government contractor at Fort Detrick, Md., the Army's biological defense center, according to Lt. Cmdr. Edward Zeigler, spokesman for the Naval District of Washington. One sample tested positive for anthrax and seven tested negative, he said.

Most of the mail moving through the Navy mail station was processed by the Postal Service's V Street facility, which handles government mail, and it was closed, Jaffer said.

Later, however, it was determined that a contractor that transported the mail to the Navy site had also collected mail from 10 other facilities in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. All were closed.

The contractor, Shaw Inc., participated in the testing.

Only a few people work at the automated naval site. Chun said the workers wear protective clothing and that an air monitor worked as designed. The Navy facility handles mail for a Navy base in Washington and several other Navy offices in the area, Chun said.

Chun said the matter was being further investigated by the FBI, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, postal inspectors and others.

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