Though anthrax has turned American Media Inc.'s Florida headquarters into a 70,000-square-foot white elephant and workers are reluctant to return, experts in decontamination say there are new products that can make such buildings safe again.
"I, personally, would go into the building," says general counsel Mike Kahane, whose office was located in the three-story Boca Raton center that housed six of the nation's largest tabloids. "But I know many people don't feel the same way I do."
American Media is looking for new quarters while company officials consider putting the building up for sale. But experts say they can deal with anthrax-contaminated buildings, noting that no one would dream of abandoning such landmarks as the U.S. Senate office building and NBC headquarters at New York's 30 Rockefeller Plaza just because traces of the deadly bacteria were found there.
"You can't walk away from these buildings all over the United States," says Joan Dougherty, president of AA Trauma Cleanup in Pompano, Fla., an environmental cleanup company.
If the old reliable bleach and water method were the only thing available, it would be nearly impossible to clean up all the anthrax without gutting the affected areas. But people in the decontamination business are pinning their hopes on a new product developed at a government laboratory with congressional backing.
Officials are conducting tests on a bacteria-killing agent developed by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., which is run by Lockheed Martin Corp. for the Department of Energy. The product, known in the industry as the "SNL formulation," can be used as a liquid, gel, foam, aerosol or fog.
Anthrax spores are 1-5 microns in size and act like a hard shell for the bacteria. They are resistant to heat, cold, drought and radiation exposure, and can persist for decades or longer in soil.
The Sandia product is designed to break down the protective coating and attack the DNA. Ron Gospodarski, president of Bio-Recovery Corp. in New York City, says anthrax spores tend to clump and settle on surfaces, where this decontamination agent can reach them.
"These spores can't burrow themselves into walls and can't burrow themselves into the flooring or the ceiling or anything like that," he says. "So when we come in and fog or we come in and foam or we come in and put topical applications of the SNL formulation, it's going to kill everything that's there."
AMI employees are worried about anthrax in the air ducts and on computer keyboards, like the one used by deceased photo editor Robert Stevens. Gospodarski says the fog particles are smaller than the spores and can go anyplace anthrax can.
"We're pushing that into all the little crevices that even the micron spores of anthrax couldn't fit," he says.
EnviroFoam Technologies Inc. of Huntsville, Ala., one of two companies licensed to market the product, is consulting with officials in New York, Washington and Florida. Kevin Irvine, the company's manager of technical sales, says the product is being tested on the anthrax strain recovered from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office.
Irvine says he's seen the product work in laboratories, and he's confident it can make workplaces safe.
"I'd stake my life on it — and I may have to," says Irvine, an Army chemical corps veteran.
The trouble is, there is no government protocol for certifying a building, once decontaminated, as 100 percent safe.
"You would actually have to almost verify every centimeter of that office, and that's virtually impossible," says Brian Kalamanka, president and CEO of Modec Inc., a Denver company also licensed by Sandia. "It's identifying it, treating it and then verifying. And there is nothing available today on a widescale basis."
Kalamanka says it could be costly to treat these buildings. But not reoccupying them would be like letting the perpetrators "accomplish their goal."
In the end, it's going to take a cost/benefit analysis to determine which buildings are reoccupied, and which are torn down, says Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas.
Schecter was commissioner of public health for Broome County, N.Y., in 1981, when a transformer fire contaminated an 18-story state office building with deadly dioxin and PCBs. The state decided it would be cheaper to clean up than tear down; it took 13 years and $53 million, and trace amounts of the chemicals still turn up in tests.
While dioxins are a chemical contaminant and anthrax is a biological one, Schecter says the same principles apply.
"They can be cleaned up sufficiently for reuse," he says. "There's also the economic and the emotional side of the equation. ... I mean, the $53 million for one 18-story building in Binghamton, N.Y., many years ago is a rather staggering amount of money."
Cleanup at AMI in Florida is a moot point for now; the building is still an active crime scene. Even if the $4.6 million structure could be fogged, Kahane says a "significant number of employees don't want to go back."
Others may soon be facing these same questions. Three Florida post offices have shown traces of anthrax, and there have been several other exposures — including the 7-month-old son of an ABC News producer in New York.
Gospodarski and a team were planning to enter the ABC News offices at Central Park West to do some precautionary cleanup. They were armed with the old standard — 10 percent bleach solution.
Despite his confidence in the emerging technology, Gospodarski says he can understand why people would be afraid.
"That's like saying, `OK, let's rebuild the World Trade Center towers,"' he says. "But does anybody want to have that office on the 102nd floor? I don't think many hands would go up."