Bacillus anthracis contamination and inhalational anthrax in a mail processing and distribution center


Wayne T. Sanderson, The University of Iowa, 100 Oakdale Campus, #134 IREH, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, USA (e-mail:


Aims:  Four inhalational anthrax cases occurred in a large mail processing and distribution center in Washington, DC, after envelopes containing Bacillus anthracis spores were processed. This report describes the results of sampling for B. anthracis spores during investigations conducted in October and December 2001.

Methods and Results:  Wet swabs, wet wipes, vacuum sock, and air-filter samples were collected throughout the facility to characterize the extent of building contamination. The results showed widespread contamination of B. anthracis spores, particularly associated with one delivery bar code sorter (DBCS) machine that had sorted the spore-containing envelopes and an area where the envelopes were handled by postal workers. Spore concentrations decreased as distance from the DBCS machine increased, but spores were widely dispersed into surrounding areas.

Conclusion:  The spatial distribution of culture positive samples was closely related to the work areas of the inhalational anthrax cases and supported epidemiological evidence that the workers became ill from exposure to B. anthracis spores in areas where the contaminated envelopes had travelled.

Significance and Impact of the Study:  The results of this investigation were used to guide decontamination efforts and provided baseline spore concentrations for follow-up measurements after the building had been cleaned. Implementing methods to reduce aerosolization and dispersion of dust within the facility would reduce postal workers’ potential exposures to bioterrorism agents.