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.
Buildings With Anthrax Closed Down
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.
A Complicated Decontamination Process
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.
"The fear was that the decontamination wouldn't necessarily penetrate all the places that could hide dirt," says Rusczek.
They even decided to bury the bricks that once formed the mill's walls.
"There was supposed to have been a fence and a tablet or plaque saying 'not to be touched for 2,000 years,'" says John Mongan, who was the mayor of Manchester during part of the time the plant was being decontaminated. "Two thousand years — that's pretty scary."
Mongan says he's concerned about the building's bricks, because if any were stolen, there could be "patios all over Manchester with spores in them."
The bricks were pronounced clean, and in fact there have been no reported incidents of anthrax in Manchester since 1966. But the question remains: Can anthrax spores and the threat they pose ever be totally eliminated from a building?
Eradicating All Spores
"When we clean up this place, we will completely eradicate all the spores," says Fred Stroud, the Environmental Protection Agency official who is in charge of the first American anthrax outbreak since Manchester.
"The spores may be on flat surfaces, furniture, rugs, personal items, chairs, walls," says Stroud, whose job is to make the American Media Inc.building in Boca Raton, Fla. safe. "We'll do follow up to ensure we eradicate them all."
Stroud will spray the same substance that was used at ABCNEWS headquarters in New York.
But what about all those keyboards and drawers and the spaces in all those electronic gadgets? The head of AMI says he'll wait until after the cleanup to decide whether his editors and photographers feel safe enough to return.
But Ron Gospodarski of Bio-recovery Corp. in New York, who's working on the ABC building where no spores have been found, is more optimistic.
"Nobody can say that when we leave a place there's 100 percent no spores," he says. "I would have no problem putting my families in these buildings."