The Staying Power of Anthrax

ByABC News
October 24, 2001, 7:56 PM

Oct. 24 -- An anthrax scare can turn ordinary places into frightening characters in an eerie drama. Even after all the cleanup, can the nation's buildings be safe?

Nearly 50 years ago in Manchester, N.H., a thriving textile mill became the site of the country's first epidemic of inhalation anthrax. The decision to destroy that factory is a chilling warning of what could happen to today's anthrax sites.

For nearly 20 years, workers at the Arms Textile Company turned the wool from goatskins into coat linings for wealthy American consumers. There were occasional cases of skin, or cutaneous anthrax, from contaminated animal hides.

"Anthrax was also known as wool sorters' disease, and it was known as an occupational hazard taken in stride," says Fred Rusczek, Manchester's current public health director.

But alarm bells went off when at least three workers fell ill with coughs and soaring fevers in the summer of 1957. They had the more lethal inhalation anthrax. All of them died.

Arms Textile did not clean up. Instead, workers were given a vaccine. Nine years later, a man working at a machinery plant next door died.

"There was a ventilation system that was shared," explains Rusczek, suggesting the spores originated at Arms Textile.

"It had to be the plant across the street," says Dr. Philip Brachman, who tested the vaccine given to the workers.

That's when the state took action, recommending that the mill be closed.

But according to William Arnold, a former Manchester health director, closing the building was not enough.

"It was an old building, and of course it had the cracks in the flooring and in the walls where the spores could have been stored for years and years," he says. "Getting them out was actually impossible, unless you really went through a complicated decontamination process."

So the decision was made to not only tear down the building, but to first decontaminate it with chlorine, and then burn it.