|Empty Anthrax Tower Stands
as Reminder of Biological Weapons History|
Capital News Service
Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001
ANNAPOLIS - Fort Detrick's "Anthrax Tower" was at the center of
the biological weapons program during the 1950s and 1960s, producing
weapons-grade anthrax for bombs, aerosols and other delivery systems.
Now with Fort Detrick back in the national spotlight as a biological warfare
defense facility, the sealed seven-story building stands as a silent
reminder to the persistence of the deadly bacterium.
Samples of anthrax spores found in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's
office are being tested at Fort Detrick in the laboratories of the U.S. Army
Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, said AMRIID spokeswoman
Caree Vander Linden. The House and Senate office buildings closed Wednesday
so investigators could search for traces of anthrax.
"When it gets into spore form, it can hide just about anywhere,"
said Norman Covert, former Fort Detrick installation historian and public
Detrick's Building 470, as the tower is called, was closed in 1969.
Specialists tried three times in the late 1960s and early 1970s to
Electric frying pans with a solid form of the compound paraformaldehyde were
placed throughout the building then heated, releasing clouds of poisonous
gas inside the sealed structure. Bacteria, similar to anthrax, were left
inside to serve as "markers" indicating whether the gas
"But, because it was anthrax, they could only say that it was 99.9
percent safe," Covert said, adding that everything inside the building
had potentially been exposed to the microscopic bacterium. In the cracks
crisscrossing a concrete floor or in a building's ventilation system, the
bacterium can wait, dormant, for years, until it finds its way into a warm,
moist environment like the mucus membrane of a human.
Since its closure, Building 470 has served as a "showplace to the world
that we no longer have a biological weapons program," Covert
When there was still such a program, two Fort Detrick workers died from
inhalation anthrax, the same cause of death for an American Media Inc.
worker in Florida Oct. 5. The first Detrick anthrax casualty was a
microbiologist in 1951, and the other, an electrician, in 1958, said
It is unlikely that the buildings where anthrax has been found in Florida,
New York and Washington, D.C., would meet the same fate as the Anthrax
However, the Associated Press reported Thursday that AMI will not return to
its Boca Raton, Fla., office and is looking for new space. AMI could not be
reached for comment.
"I don't think they should have a big problem with (the decontamination
of) a building," said Dr. Michael Donnenberg, head of the Division of
Infectious Diseases at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
"Spores can remain viable for a very long time," he said, but even
if they were in aerosol form and spread into a building's ventilation
system, eventually they would settle and the surfaces could be
There are four chemical solutions that the Environmental Protection Agency,
which is handling decontamination, could use on areas exposed to anthrax,
spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said. One of the most common is a sodium
hypochlorite solution similar to household bleach. Others include soy
emulsion, Sandia foam and seldom-used formaldehyde.
"the risk is low" of contracting the disease, said Dr. Joseph
Barbera, co-director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk
Management at George Washington University. "The question is, how low
"Anthrax is a bacteria. It's something that can be rationally evaluated
and dealt with," Barbera said.
It takes between 8,000 and 50,000 spores for someone to become ill from
inhalation anthrax, Donnenberg said, and spores can only infect cutaneously
through broken skin. Those numbers are similar to results of testing on
nonhuman primates at Fort Detrick in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Dr.
Joseph Jemski found the effective lethal dose of spores for inhalation
anthrax to be 12,000 to 15,000, Covert said.
At that time, huge brewing pots that look like those found in today's
microbreweries were used to produce large quantities of anthrax slurries,
When President Nixon signed a 1969 executive order ending the offensive
biological weapons program, the Anthrax Tower's usefulness came to an end.
Since the building, with catwalks instead of floors, would not be easily
converted to another purpose and the threat of anthrax could not be totally
eradicated, it has stood unused for decades.
"The only way it could be torn down would be to capsulize and implode
it," said Covert, who has heard rumors about a renovation or
demolition. Responsibility for the building now falls to the National Cancer
Institute, which took over nearly 70 acres of facilities surrounding the
ominous tower in 1976.
NCI spokesman Bob Kuska did not return phone calls to discuss the agency's
future plans for the building.
The NCI-Detrick research facilities have been a popular tour destination for
groups from the former Soviet republics to see how investment made in
biological weapons programs can be converted to productive and positive
Today the facility conducts groundbreaking research in the race to cure
cancer and AIDS, but at the center, the Anthrax Tower "is like a big
museum," said Covert. "It doesn't represent any danger to
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