- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Tens of thousands of letters delivered weeks ago to homes around the country likely picked up trace amounts of anthrax in a New Jersey postal facility, federal health officials say.
Traces of the lethal bacteria found this week at a Connecticut postal center prove that the death of 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren was "definitely" a case of cross-contamination, according to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.
"I'm concerned about the cross-contamination because you can't see these little buggers," Mr. Thompson said on Monday. "Where's the next cross-contamination going to take place?"
Scientists do not know the maximum safe level of exposure to anthrax, and people with weak immune systems could be infected by far lower amounts than it would take to sicken healthier people.
Dr. Kenneth J. Dillon of Spectrum Bioscience Inc., a disease-research firm in the District, says the danger of a specific amount of anthrax depends on the person who comes into contact with it.
"It is conceivable that a person could get anthrax from one spore if their immune system or lungs were in terrible shape," he said. "But it's by no means sure that Mrs. Lundgren's death is a result of cross-contamination. That's just the leading theory right now."
Federal health officials recommend people with weakened immune systems hold mail away from their face when opening it, or consider having others open their mail for them.
Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told the New York Times there may be "tens of thousands and maybe more letters to be potentially at risk for some level of cross-contamination."
In a statement, the CDC said "millions of pieces of mail have gone through the known contaminated facilities."
Dr. Koplan stressed, however, that nearly eight weeks have passed since these letters were tainted and each day the lack of further anthrax cases diminishes the risk of getting anthrax through the mail.
Investigators tracked 300 Connecticut-bound letters that passed through the Trenton, N.J., facility Oct. 9, within seconds of anthrax-filled letters mailed to Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont.
At least one of those letters is believed to have been cross-contaminated when it went through Trenton, bringing the lethal bacteria to a mail-sorting facility in Wallingford, Conn., where spores were detected on Monday.
Postal employees at Wallingford sort mail for towns throughout southern Connecticut, including Oxford, where Mrs. Lundgren lived.
No traces of the lethal bacteria were found in her mail, but some were detected on a letter delivered to one of her neighbors in the nearby town of Seymour, health officials said.
Investigators previously compared Mrs. Lundgren's case to that of New York hospital worker Kathy T. Nguyen, 61, who died of inhalation anthrax on Oct. 31.
Authorities indicate that the type of anthrax that killed Mrs. Lundgren and Mrs. Nguyen was identical to that found inside the Daschle and Leahy letters.
But linking Mrs. Nguyen to cross-contaminated mail has been more difficult. A letter addressed to a South Bronx business near her home went through the Trenton postal facility at about the same time as the Daschle and Leahy letters, but that letter hasn't been found.
Three others who have died of inhalation anthrax since Oct. 4 had direct contact with anthrax-tainted mail in their workplace.
Meanwhile, the anthrax attacks haven't helped the Postal Service's ailing economic condition. Postmaster General John Potter yesterday said the period since the attacks began has been "the most difficult in our history."
His statement came on the same day the Postal Service announced it will end the fiscal year $1.7 billion in the red. Besides asking Congress for funds to cover expenses from the terrorist attacks, the Postal Service also hopes to raise to 37 cents the cost of first-class stamps a 3-cent increase.

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