Ricin found in Senate Majority leader’s office, 16 people decontaminated

FEB. 3–WASHINGTON–Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Tuesday that a white powder found in his office tested positive for the deadly poison ricin, forcing closure of Senate office buildings and close scrutiny of congressional mail. It was the second such scare from a lethal toxin to hit the nation’s Capitol.

The Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, said officials were somewhat reassured because none of the 16 people who went through a decontamination process had turned up sick from exposure to ricin.

“As each minute ticks by, we are less and less concerned about the health effects,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, the CDC director, told The Associate Press. “If the ricin were pure, we would expect very early onset. The fact that we haven’t seen that is reassuring.”

President Bush was briefed on the situation, and the administration established an interagency team to investigate what Frist told colleagues was a chilling crime.

Gerberding said that although several tests have indicated the substance is ricin, laboratories at the CDC in Atlanta and in Washington are conducting “gold standard” tests that involve innoculating lab animals to confirm initial results.

The jarring discovery of the suspicious powder came Monday, in the mail room of Frist’s office in the Dirksen office building. Sixteen people underwent decontaminated, but no one became sick, according to Senate sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Senate mounted a show of business as usual, turning to a highway spending bill. But Senate hearings were canceled and all three Senate office buildings were closed. Capitol police suspended tours in the Capitol itself and advised lawmakers not to open any mail.

As the Senate convened Tuesday for regular business, Frist told his colleagues that tests confirmed “that this was ricin.”

“Somebody in all likelihood manufactured this with intent to harm,” Frist said.

Charles Dasey, a spokesman at Fort Detrick, Md., said scientists there were doing a “confirmatory” test on the substance. The test is “higher reliability” but will take longer, he said.

Frist said that “all air sampling and all environmental studies today are negative with the exception of what was found in that single office at that site,” which he said “was ultimately determined to be ricin.”

In 2001, an anthrax-laced letter shut down Congress briefly and closed the Hart Senate Office Building for months of expensive cleaning. Five people were killed and 17 sickened nationwide after coming into contact with letters containing anthrax.

Dirksen and the other two main Senate office buildings were closed as authorities were to remove and test all mail that has been delivered there. The closures were forcing the cancellation of committee meetings scheduled for those buildings.

The decontamination procedure was not explained, but witnesses saw some people emerging into the cold from a van outside the Dirksen building clad only in T-shirts and pants. One wore a white jumpsuit.

However, no one was expected to get sick, said Frist, who normally uses his Capitol majority leader’s office instead of the Dirksen office. If symptoms of ricin poisoning have not surfaced in about eight hours, contamination is unlikely, said Frist, a surgeon before his election to the Senate.

A majority of tests conducted on the powder indicated ricin, said U.S. Capitol police chief Terrence Gainer, even though some were negative.

In Connecticut, meanwhile, a postal worker found an unidentified powder leaking out of an envelope addressed to the Republican National Committee, and inspectors were trying to identify it. The powder was found late Monday at the Wallingford postal sorting center, the same facility where anthrax spores were found in 2001.

A clue to ricin poisoning is a suddenly developed fever, cough and excess fluid in the lungs, a fact sheet from CDC says. These symptoms could be followed by severe breathing problems and possibly death, the CDC said. There is no known antidote.

Twice as deadly as cobra venom, ricin, which is derived from the castor bean plant, is relatively easily made and can be inhaled, ingested or injected.

Gainer said they were still investigating how the powder got into the mailroom.

The Homeland Security Department was monitoring the situation, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. An FBI official said the agency was awaiting a final test from a laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., before deciding whether to get more fully involved in the case.

Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota was majority leader in 2001 when deadly anthrax was found in letters sent to his office and the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in the Hart Senate Office Building. No one was ever arrested in those incidents.

Bob Stevenson, a spokesman for Frist, said that in addition to shutting down tours, officials decided to close Senate restaurants and give Senate pages the day off. But he said that essential Capitol employees were expected to report to work as usual.

Frist gave no indication that extra security had been ordered for the Capitol complex, although security in the area has been high since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Mail to congressional offices has been irradiated since the 2001 anthrax attack, but Frist said radiation is unlikely to have an effect on ricin.

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


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.