- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

A white powder, which a series of preliminary tests indicate is the deadly poison ricin, was discovered yesterday in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

A government official said further tests were being conducted at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., with more definitive results expected by today.

“At this juncture, from a scientific standpoint, this is ricin and it is, in all likelihood, sent with intent to harm,” Mr. Frist, a surgeon, said at a news conference last night.

The powder was found in an envelope in the mailroom of Mr. Frist’s office suite on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Building. The Tennessee Republican senator told a news conference last night that there was “no evidence of inhalation by any people in the office or on the floor.”

He said symptoms of ricin poisoning usually appear within four to eight hours of exposure — a window that had passed when he spoke at around 11:15 p.m., saying there “was no cause for alarm.”

“Everybody is just fine,” he said of his staffers.

In all, 16 persons were decontaminated as a precaution. Ricin is most lethal when injected, but can be deadly when inhaled or ingested. However, toxicologists say it is not as deadly as anthrax, which was sent through the mail to Congress more than two years ago.

U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said several rounds of tests had been performed, several of them coming back positive, others negative for ricin.

After the second round of tests last night, the air handlers to the building were shut off, he said. Further tests, Chief Gainer said, “will give us some indication of what our next steps are.”

The Homeland Security Department was monitoring the situation, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

Mr. Frist said that there had been no decision on whether to close the Dirksen Building, but that one would be made at 5 a.m. today.

“The Senate will be in business,” Mr. Frist said.

ABC News reported that about 7:20 p.m., a message on the Senate’s internal telephone alert system instructed employees in several offices on the south side of the building’s fourth floor to report to a large conference room. Other employees were warned to stay away from the south side of the fourth floor.

Ricin, derived from the castor bean plant, can kill within days. Twice as deadly as cobra venom, ricin is relatively easily made.

Police found traces of ricin in a north London apartment in January 2002 and arrested seven men of North African origin in connection with the virulent toxin that has been linked to al Qaeda terrorists and Iraq.

A package containing ricin was also found at a postal facility serving Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina in October.

An FBI official said the bureau was awaiting the result of tests at the Fort Detrick laboratory before deciding whether to get more fully involved in the case.

Mail to congressional offices has been irradiated since deadly anthrax was found in letters sent to the offices of Sens. Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, in October 2001. No one has been arrested in those incidents, but the Brentwood postal facility in Northeast, through which the letters passed, was closed for more than two years for decontamination.

In all, five persons died that fall, including two workers at Brentwood, for whom the recently reopened building is now named.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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