WASHINGTON – The State Department called in a hazardous materials truck Wednesday afternoon after a suspicious substance was found in the building's mailroom. Air conditioning units were immediately shut down to protect workers while FBI agents interviewed a man under quarantine and investigators tried to investigate a "powdery substance."
The FBI collected and removed the substance from the mailroom, sending it to a lab for further testing. State Department sources said the analysis would take a few days. At 6 p.m. the area was declared safe, but the mailroom remained secured.
With all of the nation on heightened alert, the State Department's latest scare comes just as the department told all U.S. embassies to stock up on the antibiotic Cipro in the event of an anthrax attack.
"We've asked our missions to stock a three-day supply of this antibiotic for the individuals who work in or who frequent the missions — cover employees, families, foreign service, national employees, contracts — other who might be there. It's a precautionary method," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Officials emphasized they don't have any information indicating an imminent threat to embassies or consulates from the use of anthrax or other biological agents.
On Capitol Hill, the point man on bioterrorism for the Department of Health and Human Services tried to clarify the facts about the risk of anthrax exposure.
"You need a substantial exposure," said Scott Lillibridge, special assistant for bioterrorism in HHS. "The good news is if this is a massive exposure there should be lots of people sick with pulmonary anthrax. We are not finding that."
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill heard several competing concerns Wednesday during hearings on threats to America's safety.
Under the microscope were policy issues that lawmakers said they wanted to address without inflaming public fear.
Chief among them was how to prepare agencies for a bioterrorism attack. Right now, the federal government is depending on the quick response of local health agencies and medical personnel to alert them to potential problems.
"It is the local emergency medical personnel, the hospital, the health department administrators, the doctors, nurses, support staff in the communities where we live whose actions and decisions are going to determine how contained or how damaging any bioterrorism incident ultimately will be," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In turn, local agencies are relying on Congress to provide the money and resources to prepare the front line of detection. Right now, $8.7 billion is spent on readiness but only $311 million makes its way outside Washington's establishments, said Amy E. Smithson, a doctor and senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center.
"Everyone gives lip service to this. Yet most of the billions of dollars spent each year never find their way past the Beltway," added Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa.
Sending a Reality Check
Lawmakers said one of the worst things they can do is exaggerate the threats or create any sense of panic, but the risk of contaminating the nation's resources is very real.
"It's important as we consider the issues here not to scare people or create mass paranoia, but to inform and educate the public, so we can be alert and aware of what we need to look out for," said Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H.
Doing that, Smithson said recent news about cropdusters being grounded by the Department of Transportation inflamed the discussion without putting the threats into context.
"There are many people in this country that are under the impression that cropdusters are suited to disperse biological warfare agents," she said. "Quite frankly, that is not the case. Cropdusters disperse materials in the 100 micron particle sizes or larger. The size of a biological warfare agent needed to infect the human lung is one to 10 microns, so lets hopefully cut down on some of the apprehensions aboout cropdusters as an instrument of biological terror."
She added: "Rubbing some type of an anthrax substance on a keyboard is not a mass casualty dispersal attempt."
At a separate hearing, the Federal Bureau of Investigation told lawmakers that the nation's water supply is a logical target for a possible terrorist target.
But officials said that based on current available intelligence and investigative information, there are currently no specific credible threats to any water distribution networks.
The major water system operators are asking Congress for $5 billion to protect water and waste water plants from terrorism.
The Army Corps of Engineers said they cannot eliminate all risks but they are already working with the FBI to identify weaknesses.