Anthrax cleanup is a thorny issue

RELUCTANT WORKERS: Besides cleaning with bleach and water, the only other known method is based on a new technology that is facing its first real world test


Mon, Oct 22, 2001 - Page 6

Though anthrax has turned American Media Inc's Florida headquarters into a 6,300m2 white elephant and workers are reluctant to return, experts in decontamination say new products can make such buildings safe again.

"I, personally, would go into the building," says general counsel Mike Kahane, whose office was located in the three-story Boca Raton center that housed six of the nation's largest tabloids. "But I know many people don't feel the same way I do."

But experts say they can deal with anthrax-contaminated buildings, noting that no one would dream of abandoning such landmarks as the US Senate office building and NBC headquarters at New York's 30 Rockefeller Plaza just because traces of the deadly bacteria were found there.

"You can't walk away from these buildings all over the United States," says Joan Dougherty, president of AA Trauma Cleanup in Pompano, Florida, an environmental cleanup company.

If the old reliable bleach and water method were the only thing available, it would be nearly impossible to clean up all the anthrax without gutting the affected areas. But people in the decontamination business are pinning their hopes on a new product developed at a government laboratory with congressional backing.

Officials are conducting tests on a bacteria-killing agent developed by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is run by Lockheed Martin Corp for the US Department of Energy. The product, known in the industry as the "SNL formulation," can be used as a liquid, gel, foam, aerosol or fog.

Anthrax spores are 1 to 5 microns in size and act like a hard shell for the bacteria. They are resistant to heat, cold, drought and radiation exposure, and can persist for decades or longer in soil.

The Sandia product is designed to break down the coating and attack the DNA. Ron Gospodarski, president of Bio-Recovery Corp in New York, says anthrax spores tend to clump and settle on surfaces, where this agent can reach them.

"These spores can't burrow themselves into walls and can't burrow themselves into the flooring or the ceiling or anything like that," he says. "So when we come in and fog or we come in and foam or we come in and put topical applications of the SNL formulation, it's going to kill everything that's there."

AMI employees are worried about anthrax in the air ducts and on computer keyboards, like the one used by deceased photo editor Robert Stevens. Gospodarski says the fog particles are smaller than the spores and can go anyplace anthrax can.

"We're pushing that into all the little crevices that even the micron spores of anthrax couldn't fit," he says.

Cleanup at AMI in Florida is a moot point for now; the building is still an active crime scene. Even if the US$4.6 million structure could be fogged, Kahane says a "significant number of employees don't want to go back."

Gospodarski and a team were planning to enter the ABC News offices at Central Park West to do some precautionary cleanup. They were armed with the old standard -- 10 percent bleach solution.

Despite his confidence in the technology, Gospodarski says he can understand why people are afraid.

"That's like saying, `OK, let's rebuild the World Trade Center towers,'" he says. "But does anybody want to have that office on the 102nd floor? I don't think many hands would go up."