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We know better now, of course. But the bitter lesson we have learned from the anthrax mailings is that what the experts and government officials did not know--though they assured the public anyway--ended up costing the lives of two Postal Service employees who didn't have to die.
Based on a lot of theory and very little experience, the experts were pretty sure it took a minimum of 8,000 to 10,000 anthrax spores to cause the deadly inhaled version of the infection. They told postal workers that spores inside sealed envelopes were unlikely to harm them. They were convinced that lethal airborne spores would be reasonably safe once they had settled down.
Yet as the anthrax attacks unfolded, it became clear that almost everything the experts believed was wrong. Indeed, when Robert Stevens, a picture editor at American Media, came down with inhalation anthrax in late September--the first in the U.S. in a quarter-century--his disease was so much at odds with what the experts expected that at first it was attributed to natural causes. Anthrax is common in wild animals and livestock; its spores can live in soil for decades. Stevens was an avid outdoorsman, so maybe he picked up a few spores in the wild--perhaps, as Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson famously suggested at a press conference, from drinking water out of a stream.
Thompson's theory never made much sense. It's hard to imagine any scenario by which buried spores could emerge from the ground, mix with drinking water and then lodge in someone's lungs. And sure enough, a sweep of the American Media building quickly made clear that Stevens had come into contact with anthrax at work, not play. Traces of powdery spores were found on his computer keyboard, in the company mailroom and, ultimately, throughout America Media's Boca Raton, Fla., offices. Someone had deliberately sent the microbes into the building.
But that didn't make much sense either. True, some of the 9/11 hijackers lived in Delray Beach, Fla.--only a few miles from Stevens' office. But why would they choose American Media, and why would they launch such a small-scale strike?
Things began to get a little clearer a couple of weeks later, when anthrax-laced letters were discovered at NBC, the New York Post and Senator Tom Daschle's office in Washington. This time, alerted by the Florida case, investigators managed to get their hands on the source: three letters (and ultimately a fourth, addressed to Senator Patrick Leahy) with similar messages and handwriting, all of which had traveled through a major mail-sorting facility in suburban Hamilton Township, N.J. Despite what the experts had so confidently asserted, you could clearly mount an anthrax attack through the mail.
What's more, the anthrax that showed up in post offices in New Jersey, New York City, all over the Washington area and in postal facilities in the Midwest and overseas proved that the stuff could--contrary to conventional wisdom--travel with astonishing ease. The original envelopes, passing through high-speed mail-sorting equipment, had puffed spores into the air and sickened eight postal workers. Then the spores settled on other letters that contaminated some 20 mailrooms and perhaps tens of thousands of individual pieces of mail.
One surprise was the remarkable mobility of this batch of anthrax--for tests have all but proved that the powder in all of the sites, in New York, Washington and Florida, came from a single variety, known as the Ames strain. Another was how lethal it could be. It's easy to see how the two dead Postal Service employees could have become infected from breathing the air near those tainted sorting machines. How another postal worker at a State Department mailroom contracted inhalation anthrax is still a mystery. At first he seemed the improbable victim of cross-contamination from one piece of government mail to another. Investigators now prefer to believe that he came in contact with the Leahy letter when a ZIP-code error sent it through the mailroom at the State Department on its way to the Senate.
Equally improbable cross-contamination was, in the end, deemed the most likely reason for the fourth and fifth anthrax deaths: a New York City hospital worker named Kathy Nguyen, 61, and Ottilie Lundgren, 94, a widow from rural Oxford, Conn. While they can't be entirely sure, health officials believe neither woman had set foot in a contaminated post office, yet the strain of anthrax bacteria that killed them was identical to that of all the other cases. It's unlikely that 8,000 or 10,000 spores had made the leap from the original letters onto other mail and then into these two women's lungs. A lethal dose can clearly be a lot smaller than experts thought, particularly for the elderly and those with respiratory problems.