I have spent the last year and a half working as a science fellow on Capitol Hill for Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat representing the 12th District of New Jersey. I expected to learn about the legislative process. I expected to work long hours, sometimes at a frantic pace. What I did not expect was to be exposed to bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax.
Ours was one of four House offices to test positive for the presence of anthrax bacteria. It is postulated that some of our mail became cross-contaminated by direct contact with letters to Sen. Thomas Daschle or Sen. Patrick Leahy — letters found to contain startling quantities of anthrax spores. Contamination of the House Ford and Longworth office buildings was reported to be much lower than in the Senate Hart building. The definitive source of the contamination of the House offices has not been pinpointed and probably never will be.
The nature of the contamination and the lack of protocols to address anthrax in the setting of the Capitol or of the Brentwood post office raised questions that had never before been asked. Basic questions that are fairly straightforward when characterizing chemical pollution — such as, “How contaminated is our office?” — led to confusion. We had to be content with vague, qualitative answers rather than concrete, quantitative answers.
The anthrax bacteria that was mailed to Capitol Hill was poorly understood by the experts and had not previously been sampled or evaluated in a public setting. The nature of the bacteria and its effect on people at various levels of exposure is still largely unknown. No one has determined how many spores are represented by a single bacteria colony growing in a culture; it could be 10 or 1,000. These particular types of anthrax spores tend to clump, so a single colony in the lab could represent many clumps or a single spore. Furthermore, no one has been able to quantify how many spores it takes to infect an individual.
Sampling for the bacteria using wipes or vacuuming through a Hepa filter are the most common procedures employed on Capitol Hill. These sampling methods pose their own problems. Extracting the spores from the sampling media has been reported to have an efficiency anywhere from 30 to 80 percent, possibly resulting in significant under-reporting of the number of spores. That is quite an error bar, one that hampers making critical decisions.
Bioterrorism through the mail was certainly not something for which Congress had planned. Response to the incident was rapid, but cumbersome. Many federal agencies were involved, ranging from the National Institute for Occupational Safety to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease. Private contractors and consultants were brought in to supplement federal agencies and to staff off-hours sampling teams. Tens of thousands of analytical samples were taken and processed at Fort Dietrick, more than $2 million worth and climbing. Before its opening in mid-December, the renovated Botanical Gardens just west of the Capitol was used as a command center. At times, scores of technicians, doctors and disease experts were lined up in rows of temporary desks amid the lush plants and tranquil ponds. The whole effort was undertaken in an atmosphere rife with politics, egos, fear, schedules, the media and public perception.
In the past 16 months my fellowship had taken me to the far reaches of my professional experience: national energy policy, transportation security, historic preservation and smart growth. Working in a contaminated office, I was finally in a setting familiar to me, since remediating contaminated sites has been my main line of work for the past 27 years. However, this time I was the Victim. Someone had contaminated our work space. I had been exposed to anthrax bacteria. My officemates were understandably nervous and distrustful of the people in charge. They looked to me to reassure them that the sampling was adequate, the cleanup was appropriate, and the office would be safe before our return. I acquired a new perspective on “risk management” and “how clean is clean.”
The manner in which the medical community proposed vaccinating those exposed to the bacteria reinforced a feeling of uneasiness. Even those not trained in medicine know that the vaccine is experimental, although it was apparently safely administered to more than half a million servicemen during the Gulf War. However, the CDC offered us no recommendations on whether to take the vaccine, and various medical experts voiced conflicting opinions regarding the efficacy of the vaccine, particularly after exposure to the bacteria. The decision was left up to the individual. With little certainty, no access to actual data and no medical background, we were ill equipped to make such a crucial decision about our health. As a result, only a tiny percentage of people who were offered the vaccine accepted it.
I want to make sure that there is only one villain being blamed for our situation: the person or organization that is responsible for mailing this deadly pathogen. There were many “good guys” who worked hard to come up with answers. The EPA finally took the lead in the characterization and cleanup of our offices. They were not perfect. We sometimes received conflicting and disjointed information. Deadlines were routinely missed. Their language and assurances were misleading at times. Levels of concern were adjusted as the project progressed. However, they learned from their mistakes. They learned how to use new information to build a framework of understanding. They gained confidence in their techniques and interpretation of results. Yes, uncertainties remained, but we were able to assess risk better as time passed. We were able to offset the concerns raised by the occasional exaggerated claims of local news media. Best of all, we were all on antibiotics for 60 days.
Nothing is risk free. We live with risks every day. Driving a car is a greater risk than flying in an airplane, yet people are still afraid to fly since September 11. We must each weigh our risk tolerance and find that region between paralyzing fear and foolish nonchalance where we can effectively operate. Then we have to get back to work.