WASHINGTON -- Sensors at two military mail facilities in the Washington area detected signs of anthrax on two pieces of mail yesterday, but Pentagon officials said the mail had already been irradiated, rendering any anthrax inert.
Officials weren't certain whether this was an attack. Additional tests and other sensors at the two facilities, one of them at the Pentagon and the other nearby, found no presence of the bacterium, which can be used as a biological weapon. There were no initial reports of illness.
The Pentagon's mail delivery site, which is separate from the main Pentagon building, was evacuated and shut down yesterday after sensors triggered an alarm around 10:30 a.m., spokesman Glenn Flood said. It was expected to remain closed until at least today while the investigation continued.
It was not clear when sensors at the second Defense Department mailroom were triggered yesterday, and Pentagon officials said only that a nearby satellite mail facility was closed. But firefighters in nearby Bailey's Crossroads, Va., reported that a military mailroom had been shut down after a hazardous material was detected. No one was allowed to leave that building.
Lieutenant Commander Jane Campbell, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the mail at both facilities was irradiated before arriving at either one. The radiation treatment would kill any anthrax bacteria, but sensors would still be able to detect it, she said.
Campbell said she had no information about the origin of the two pieces of mail.
About 175 people work at the Pentagon's mail facility, and an additional 100 may have been in contact with deliveries for the Pentagon, officials said. Medical personnel took cultures from anyone who may have had contact with those deliveries, and those people were also offered a three-day course of antibiotics and told to watch for the signs of anthrax exposure: fever, sweats, and chills.
Follow-up tests were being conducted.
Anthrax can be spread through the air or by skin contact.
Several cases involving letters laced with lethal substances remain unsolved. In October 2001, someone sent anthrax in letters through the mail to media and government offices in Washington, Florida, and elsewhere, raising fears of bioterrorism. Five people were killed and 17 were sickened.
A small amount of ricin was discovered Feb. 2, 2004, on a mail-opening machine in the office suite of Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee. The discovery led to a shutdown of three Senate office buildings for several days, and about two dozen staff members and Capitol police officers underwent decontamination.