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Leahy letter had billions of anthrax spores
WASHINGTON -- A letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy was laced with billions of anthrax spores, authorities said Tuesday, and a suspected case of the most deadly form of the disease mysteriously appeared in Connecticut.
An unidentified woman who lives in the farm country of southwestern Connecticut tested positive for inhalation anthrax, the first suspected case in several weeks.
The woman, who is in her 90s, was hospitalized in critical condition as authorities awaited additional test results from the federal government.
"It's difficult to explain how the person contracted anthrax," Connecticut Gov. John Rowland said. "There is no evidence they contracted the disease as a result of a criminal act."
In Washington, trace amounts of anthrax were found in the mailrooms of two congressional offices and FBI agents and scientists began their analysis of the Leahy letter found last week.
An FBI microbiologist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were easily billions of anthrax spores in the letter. Scientists have said 8,000 to 10,000 spores are enough to infect a person with inhalation anthrax.
An investigator who found the Leahy letter in unopened congressional mail last Friday could feel powder inside the envelope, the microbiologist said. A two-minute test of the garbage bag that held the Leahy letter detected 23,000 anthrax spores, he said.
The FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency spent nearly a week searching some 630 trash bags containing sequestered Capitol Hill mail before they found the Leahy letter. Investigators cut a hole in each bag and tested it for signs of anthrax. About 50 of the bags had at least trace amounts of anthrax spores.
The Leahy letter was similar to one sent last month to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Both envelopes were postmarked Oct. 9 from Trenton, N.J.
return address and were written in all-capital block letters.
Postal Inspector Dan Mihalko said the Leahy letter never got to the senator's office because it was quarantined along with all other Senate mail after the discovery of the Daschle letter.
Mihalko said there is an "extremely high probability" that the Leahy letter was misrouted on Oct. 12 to a State Department mail facility in Sterling, Va., where a worker came down with inhalation anthrax.
Attorney General John Ashcroft expressed hope the recent release of an FBI profile of the likely attacker would produce new clues. "We certainly have some better leads than we had a few days ago when the FBI hadn't first put out its profile," Ashcroft said in a television interview.
The offices of Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., were closed early after trace amounts of the bacteria were detected in their mailrooms. Officials said the samples were so minute they did not pose a health risk.
Police said they suspected the Kennedy and Dodd mail offices were cross-contaminated by spores from the letters to Daschle and Leahy. Kennedy and Dodd have offices in the same building as Leahy.
"All other tests which were done through Dirksen and Russell (Senate office buildings) were negative, and that's good news for us," Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols said.
Officials of the two affected senators' offices would be cleaned over the long holiday weekend and reopen Monday or Tuesday. Congressional officials are also hoping to resume normal mail delivery next week.
For much of the last week, officials had expressed hope the anthrax scares were waning, but the Connecticut case raised new uncertainty.
The woman tested positive for the inhaled form of the disease in five separate tests conducted by the Department of Public Health and Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., the governor said.
More tests were being conducted by experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Results were expected Wednesday. "Testing by the CDC could prove negative," Rowland cautioned.
He said the woman lives in Oxford, a rural community about 30 miles southwest of Hartford. She was originally treated for pneumonia and admitted to the Derby hospital last Wednesday.