- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

The District's top health officials yesterday said people should not jump to conclusions about the overall safety of the Hart Senate Office Building because of health complaints by employees who have returned to work since the building was rid of lingering anthrax spores.

D.C. Health Director Ivan C.A. Walks said employees' complaints of headaches and burning eyes and throats are most likely caused by new paint and carpets in the fumigated Hart building.

He also pointed out that events since September 11 have been extremely emotionally taxing, which may contribute to a feeling of illness among those working closest to the action such as congressional staffers and postal employees.

The Hart building, which houses offices for half of the U.S. Senate's 100 members, was shut down for months after an anthrax-packed letter was opened last October in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.

During the cleanup, which ended with the building's reopening on Jan. 22, the Environmental Protection Agency spent more than $14 million on contracts with technicians who applied a heavy dose of toxic chlorine dioxide gas in the office and chlorine dioxide liquid throughout the building.

Dr. Walks said yesterday morning on WTOP radio's "Ask the Doctor" that specialists are certain anthrax is gone from the building, and they are confident the chlorine dioxide has been completely extracted.

There is no evidence linking the ill health of congressional staffers with any residual chlorine dioxide in the Hart building, said Ted Gordon, the chief operating officer of the D.C. Health Department.

"During the decontamination, they stripped this building naked," Mr. Gordon said in a telephone interview. "When it was done, they laid down new carpet and fresh coats of paint throughout. What they didn't do is aerate the building sufficiently," he said, adding, "It is not uncommon for people to develop chemical sensitivities to new paint and new carpet."

Mr. Gordon said if the decontamination effort had taken place anywhere but Capitol Hill, the normal procedure would have been to "let the building fully bake out." But officials weren't able to do that with the Hart building because "there has been a full court press on by the Senate to get the building reopened as quickly as possible," he said.

Disagreements over the origin of the symptoms escalated last week when EPA national ombudsman Robert J. Martin said he believes the cause is contaminants, such as hydrochloric acid, that came from spontaneous chemical reactions when technicians liberally spread chlorine dioxide through the Hart building.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said 50 congressional staffers in the Hart building complained of the symptoms during the first 13 days after it was reopened. On Monday, he requested that the Office of Compliance investigate the health complaints.

Additionally, a Senate task force was set two weeks ago by the office of Sergeant-at-Arms Alfonso Lenhardt after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, wrote to Mr. Daschle that members of her staff were suffering the symptoms. Some congressional staffers, who wished to remain anonymous, said the task force told them the symptoms were probably the result of the flu or the common cold.

However, the situation has not deterred the U.S. Postal Service from pushing forward with arrangements to use the same contractor and chlorine dioxide techniques to decontaminate the District's Brentwood mail center.

Mr. Gordon said lessons learned during the cleanup of the Hart building are being applied at Brentwood. "This situation is evolving," he said. "We're looking into all of the factors."

Brentwood closed in late October after two postal employees who worked there died of exposure to anthrax spores that remained in the building after it processed the letter that later was opened in Mr. Daschle's office.

Postal Service spokeswoman Deborah Yackley said officials are making progress in preparing the building for chlorine dioxide fumigation.

"Every little crack and crevice of the building has been sealed, and crews have been doing spot cleaning with chlorine dioxide liquid inside the building," she said.

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