The same type of anthrax spores mailed last month to senators on Capitol Hill killed an elderly Connecticut widow this week, but early tests on her home showed no traces of the bacteria, officials said.
Tests of the mail, mailbox and garbage at 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren’s home in rural Oxford, Conn., were negative for anthrax exposure, Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland said yesterday.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that the spores found in the woman’s bloodstream are “indistinguishable” from those found in anthrax-laced letters mailed to U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick J. Leahy.
The anthrax spores found in those letters were manufactured and not naturally occurring, federal law enforcement authorities said. The finding rules out theories that Mrs. Lundgren contracted a naturally occurring form of the disease, but it has not helped federal investigators trace the bacteria’s origin.
“We’re continuing to reconstruct a picture of her life over the last 30 days,” said FBI spokeswoman Lisa Bull.
Meanwhile, the CDC confirmed that a letter sent from Switzerland to Chile was tainted with anthrax spores.
The letter was sent to Dr. Antonio Banfi, a pediatrician at a children’s hospital in Santiago. Dr. Banfi, who opened the envelope, and 12 others nearby have tested negative for anthrax exposure but were being treated as a precaution, according to the Chilean Health Ministry.
Chilean officials said Dr. Banfi became suspicious because the letter was postmarked in Zurich but bore a Florida return address.
There have been several other reports of anthrax spores being found in mail worldwide, but most have turned out to be false.
In Connecticut, Mr. Rowland said tests have not detected any anthrax spores at the post office in Seymour, which handles mail for Oxford, or the processing center in Wallingford, which sorts mail for all of southern Connecticut. About 400 post offices in the region also have tested negative for anthrax exposure.
Mrs. Lundgren, a retired legal secretary, on Wednesday became the fifth U.S. fatality of inhalation anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease. Friends and relatives said she seldom left home, except to visit the library, a beauty parlor, doctor’s office and her church.
Authorities said her death resembles that of Kathy T. Nguyen, a New York hospital worker who died last month. Three other persons who have died from the disease since Oct. 4 had direct contact with tainted mail at their workplaces.
In the District, Bill Burrus, president of the 360,000 member American Postal Workers Union, recommended his members refuse to work in buildings where any trace of anthrax spores remains.
The U.S. Postal Service has tested 279 facilities nationwide for anthrax exposure, 21 of which tested positive for “at least trace amounts of anthrax,” said Postal Service spokesman Jerry Kreienkamp. All but two the District’s central mail-processing facility on Brentwood Road NE and a post office in Trenton, N.J. have been cleaned and reopened, Mr. Kreienkamp said.
No postal employees have been allowed to work at the Brentwood Road and Trenton facilities, he said.
But Mr. Burrus said he became alarmed when anthrax-contaminated sorting equipment at a New York facility was cordoned off and cleaned while work continued in the rest of the building. Having postal workers wear masks and gloves while hazardous materials experts are doing cleanup nearby “is not sound medical procedure,” he said.
Mr. Kreienkamp said that the cleaning took place “on a different” floor from the postal workers, and that the Postal Service “followed the recommendations of health experts.” At least 20,000 postal workers have been given antibiotics.
Mr. Burrus said even after a facility has been cleaned, “testing is imperfect at best. If there is something on a wall or the lights and if it becomes airborne, there’s a risk of exposure.”
A postal manager at the Bladensburg Road post office in the District said the postal union would be going too far if it asks employees to not show up for work.
“The union has a right to do what they’re doing; they’re just trying to stick up for their guys,” said Brian McCutchan, who manages the post office at 3178 Bladensburg Road NE. “But if a facility tested positive for anthrax and it’s been cleaned out and tested again and there’s no more anthrax there, I say go back to work. It’s not like the Postal Service is trying to hide anything.”
Mr. Kreienkamp said the delivery of an estimated 20 billion pieces of holiday mail will not be delayed by union resistance. “We know [the workers] are going to deliver this holiday season as they always have,” he said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.