Nelson: Use pesticide to clean anthrax-infected building


Published: Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 12:40 a.m.

DAVIE - Environmental regulators should allow the use of a common pesticide gas to clean an anthrax-infected building before the start of the next hurricane season, Sen. Bill Nelson said Friday.

The Democratic lawmaker from Florida warned the public would be at risk of being exposed to the potentially deadly spores if a powerful hurricane were to damage the quarantined American Media Inc. building in Boca Raton. The six-month Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1.

''We got a time bomb sitting here,'' Nelson said during a tour of a 54-foot trailer where researchers prepared to test the pesticide, methyl bromide.

''If a hurricane came and blew this building down and anthrax was suddenly spread all over everyplace - my goodness - what a health hazard that would be.''

University of Florida entomologist Rudolf Scheffrahn and his partner, Mark Weinberg, a Lauderhill exterminator, have been advocating the chemical as a cheaper alternative to cleaning up areas contaminated by anthrax. Three other chemicals are approved for cleaning anthrax, but some of those are harmful to electric equipment and furniture.

Methyl bromide could decontaminate the 800,000-square-foot AMI building over two days and for a fraction of the money it would cost to clean it using other measures, according to Scheffrahn and Weinberg. Estimated cleanup costs currently range from $7 million to $20 million.

In Friday's test, researchers placed strips of harmless bacteria inside the trailer, which was sealed with a triple-layered tarp similar to those used to tent homes during fumigation for termites. The researchers intended to pump heated methyl bromide gas into the trailer for 48 hours to kill the bacteria. They also planned to test a method of ''scrubbing,'' or removing the gas from the trailer and recover it in liquid form.

''We're using existing tent fumigation technology,'' Weinberg said. ''Instead of killing termites we're going to kill anthrax spores.''

The Environmental Protection Agency provided a $70,000 grant for the research. A similar test was conducted a year ago. But the agency still has questions about the use of methyl bromide, which has been known to damage the Earth's protective ozone layer, as an anthrax killer.

''We need to see through testing how well it actually works and whether it can be (used) safely,'' said Jeff Kempter, a senior adviser in the agency's office of pesticide programs in Washington.

''Can it be developed into a system that is safe and effective for a whole building? That is the question.''

The researchers will be submitting a report on the test to the EPA, Kempter said.

''We understand their concerns, we think we've answered them real well,'' Scheffrahn said. ''There's no reason why, as the senator said, we can't fumigate that building and in two days kill every single spore.''

The AMI building has been quarantined since anthrax killed Sun photo editor Robert Stevens in October 2001.

President Bush signed a bill earlier this month that allows the federal government to buy the building and clean it of anthrax, which officials said entered the building on a contaminated letter.

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