Authorities say government must be quick on its feet in developing anthrax response

Tuesday, December 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Foam and liquids work on heavy equipment, gas on paper and electronics.

These are just two of the lessons emerging from the anthrax cleanup as the government learns to improvise.

``We are quite literally writing the book as we go along,'' Christie Whitman, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, said Tuesday. ``Each event has to be thoroughly analyzed as a separate case.''

No registered pesticides are approved for use against anthrax, for example. So since October, the EPA has used special provisions in the law to approve two pesticides for treating anthrax spores: an aqueous solution of chlorine dioxide and a foam used to treat anthrax-contaminated surfaces.

Whitman said that under ``emergency conditions,'' the EPA can allow a new use of a previously registered pesticide or use of an unregistered pesticide if the agency has enough data to make a finding that it probably would be safe.

``The tools in our toolbox are growing rapidly,'' she said.

At a hearing Tuesday, several senators including Environment Committee Chairman James Jeffords, I-Vt., told Whitman the government must improve quickly its ability to provide consistent information and more centralized leadership.

``After all, we are the test case,'' Jeffords said. ``No prior attempt has ever been made to remediate a biologically contaminated building.''

As the lead agency for cleaning up biological and chemical contamination, the EPA oversees the elaborate operation that officials hope will result in reopening the Hart Senate Office Building by early next year.

It first had to figure out how to spread chlorine dioxide gas safely into Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office suite, never before done in the United States. Laboratory results from the fumigation last weekend are expected by the end of this week.

Whitman said she expects to spend as much as $20 million on killing the recent spate of anthrax spores from intentional releases. So far, she said, the EPA has spent $7.5 million to clean up Senate buildings and help decontaminate other facilities.

The EPA is called in to decontaminate a facility or help local and state officials after a finding by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the site is a threat to human health.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, agreed with Jeffords that information on decontamination has been ``spotty, at best.'' He and his staff initially were told their offices in Hart were safe, Voinovich said, even after the news that potentially lethal anthrax bacteria escaped Oct. 15 from a letter opened by an aide to Daschle.

``I have personally been very frustrated with the quality and reliability of the information regarding the anthrax contamination here in Washington, including the cleanup efforts,'' he said.

One of the problems is a lack of historic scientific data that would indicate the best way to eliminate spores from an office building or to disinfect a sorting machine, said Dr. Patrick Meehan, the CDC's director of emergency and environmental health services.

``For many of the cleanup methods being used to kill anthrax spores, we will not know their effectiveness until we go through the process,'' Meehan said.

Even though the toxic decontaminating gas is a potential hazard for cleanup workers, fumigation is the best method in ``heavily contaminated areas'' such as Daschle's suite or the Brentwood postal facility, which handled anthrax-tainted letters sent to Capitol Hill in October, Meehan said.

``It is unlikely that any cleaning strategy will kill every spore,'' he said. ``However, the EPA should be able to clean and retest to the point where we all are comfortable that spores have been killed or removed'' from common surfaces used by most people.