False Positives Send Anthrax Scare Through Pentagon, DoD Facility

Local officials shut down three buildings leased by the Department of Defense in suburban Virginia and the Remote Delivery Facility at the Pentagon after a biological-agent detection systems and routine screenings showed positive for anthrax contamination on March 14.

Fortunately, over 70 subsequent tests have showed no contamination. Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, noted that during the 2001 anthrax attacks in Washington and New York, "there were multiple positive tests from the environment, sort of all over the place," he said. "We don't have any of that at this time, despite a lot of testing.

"It doesn't necessarily mean that we won't find another test that could be positive someplace else," Winkenwerder added. "But it certainly indicates, to me at least, that we're not dealing with a situation like we had three and a half years ago."

He explained subsequent tests have been conducted by swabbing surfaces and sampling the air in various locations with handheld devices. These tests are in addition to routine air sampling that goes on throughout facilities on the Pentagon reservation. "I think this is reassuring that we don't have any sort of anthrax specimen that's out in the air," Winkenwerder said.

Initial test results indicated the presence of anthrax in one of the three buildings leased by DoD in the Skyline office complex in Falls Church. The alarm came just hours after the Remote Deliver Facility in a Pentagon outbuilding was shut down because of a similar incident. Employees of the Remote Delivery Facility were evacuated after an alarm indicated the presence of a chemical or biological agent during normal operations.

The Skyline office complex houses several DoD agencies. County officials required employees there to stay inside their buildings for several hours after the alarm sounded in the afternoon. They were later advised to wash their hands and faces before departing.

Information provided to all employees told them to go directly home and place their clothing in a plastic bag and tie it. A fact sheet employees received instructed them to keep the bag in a safe place and not to disturb or open it until they receive further instructions.

The same day, hazardous materials teams from the Pentagon and Arlington County, Va., were sent out to investigate an alarm that indicated the possible presence of chemical or biological agents in the facility that handles the Pentagon's mail.

Officials evacuated the Remote Delivery Facility, an outbuilding of the Pentagon that processes mail and deliveries, after the alarm sounded around 10:30 a.m. on March 14.

The alarm indicated a preliminary positive, said Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood. He said the alarm went off during a routine screening of air and surface samples, something the facility does every day.

Winkenwerder said DoD and the rest of the federal government have made strides in preparing for biological events since the 2001 anthrax attacks. Now, routine testing and screening measures are in place. "That's how we picked this up," he noted.

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