Poison found in US Senate office

The Senate majority leader's Washington office has apparently suffered its second bioterror attack in three years, with another suspicious white powder delivered through the mail system — this time laced with poisonous ricin.

"This is a criminal action," said Sen. Bill Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, whose staff discovered the white powder in their Dirksen Senate Office Building mailroom Monday afternoon.

Sixteen people on the floor were decontaminated, and others who might have been in the area were urged to contact Senate officials, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer told reporters at a late Monday night news conference.

However, no one was expected to get sick, said Frist, who normally uses his Capitol majority leader's office instead of the Dirksen office. If symptoms of ricin poisoning have not surfaced in about eight hours, contamination is unlikely, said Frist, a surgeon before his election to the Senate.

Two out of three tests conducted on the powder indicated ricin, Gainer said. The third test came out negative, and a fourth, more definitive test was under way, with results expected Tuesday.

A clue to ricin poisoning is a suddenly developed fever, cough and excess fluid in the lungs, a fact sheet from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. These symptoms could be followed by severe breathing problems and possibly death, the CDC said. There is no known antidote.

The Homeland Security Department was monitoring the situation, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. An FBI official said the agency was awaiting a final test from a laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., before deciding whether to get more fully involved in the case.

Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota was majority leader in 2001 when deadly anthrax was found in letters sent to his and Sen. Patrick Leahy's offices in the Hart Senate Office Building. No one was ever arrested in those incidents.

However, officials seemed less concerned about public contamination from Monday's apparent attack, despite the fact that ricin can kill within days. Twice as deadly as cobra venom, ricin, which is derived from the castor bean plant, is relatively easily made and can be inhaled, ingested or injected.

Parts of the Dirksen building were still open Monday night, and Senate officials said they would wait until Tuesday morning to decide whether the entire building would be closed off for decontamination.

Gainer said they were still investigating how the powder got into the mailroom.

Frist said business would continue as usual for the Senate in the Capitol.

He gave no indication that extra security had been ordered for the Capitol complex, although security in the area has been high since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Mail to congressional offices has been irradiated since the 2001 anthrax attack, but Frist said radiation is unlikely to have an effect on ricin.

In October, a package containing ricin was found at a postal facility serving Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina.

On the Net:
Senate site: www.senate.gov
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention facts about ricin: www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/ricin/facts.asp