As Senate buildings close, no cases of illness reported
Despite efforts by Senate leaders to maintain an air of business as usual on Capitol Hill Tuesday, the apparent discovery of the toxin ricin in the Dirksen building office of Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., kept much of Congress on edge throughout the day -- with the three major Senate office buildings closed, and unconfirmed reports popping up periodically of additional "suspicious packages" being found in the Capitol itself and House office buildings.
At one point, police closed much of the Capitol's first floor and evacuated members from their offices in the area after a Senate aide discovered a "powdery residue" in the mail. A hazardous materials team was called in, and the substance ultimately tested negative as a chemical or biological agent, Senate Sergeant at Arms Bill Pickle said.
Appearing on the Senate floor, Frist confirmed that ricin had been found in the mailroom of his personal office in Dirksen. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters that, at this point, aides in Frist's office who were exposed to the toxin did not appear to have been affected.
Sources said that up to 50 people, including 10 Capitol Police officers, were quarantined at around 6:30 p.m. Monday in a room in Dirksen and decontaminated. Those quarantined included about a dozen members of the staff of Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., as well as members of Frist's staff and staffers of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Julie Gerberding, head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said today that no individuals have become ill or reported symptoms of ricin exposure. "As the minutes tick by, we are less and less concerned about the health effects," she said. However, she said that the time it takes for symptoms to develop depends on the grade and purity of the toxin, something that is not yet known.
Gerberding said that while several laboratory tests indicated that the substance found in Frist's office is ricin, a "gold standard" test in which lab animals are inoculated with the toxin would be performed to confirm that analysis.
U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona said that Capitol Police and others shut down the Hart and Russell as well as the Dirksen buildings in an effort to "cast a wide net" over the complex where mail may have circulated. "The net may even become wider," he said.
Said Daschle, "This is obviously a criminal act and we will do all that we can to find those responsible and hold them accountable." He added, "The investigation is ongoing and so far there are encouraging signs that the material has been concentrated in one area," referring to the Dirksen office building.
Law enforcement sources told the Associated Press that while the substance had been found in a mail-sorting area of Frist's office, it had not been tied to a specific piece of mail. These sources said that no extortion or threat letter was found in the area, and that most of the mail in that part of the office came from Frist's home state of Tennessee. Daschle told reporters that there was no indication that the toxin had spread through the ventilation system.