ANNAPOLIS – Fort Detrick’s “Anthrax Tower” was at the center of the biological weapons program during the 1950s and 1960s, producing weapons-grade anthrax for bombs, aerosols and other delivery systems.
Now with Fort Detrick back in the national spotlight as a biological warfare defense facility, the sealed seven-story building stands as a silent reminder to the persistence of the deadly bacterium.
Samples of anthrax spores found in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office are being tested at Fort Detrick in the laboratories of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, said AMRIID spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden.
The House and Senate office buildings closed Wednesday so investigators could search for traces of anthrax.
“When it gets into spore form it can hide just about anywhere,” said Norman Covert, former Fort Detrick installation historian and public affairs chief.
Detrick’s Building 470, as the tower is called, was closed in 1969. Specialists tried three times in the late 1960s and early 1970s to decontaminate it.
Electric frying pans with a solid form of the compound paraformaldehyde were placed throughout the building then heated, releasing clouds of poisonous gas inside the sealed structure. Bacteria, similar to anthrax, were left inside to serve as “markers” indicating whether the gas worked.
“But, because it was anthrax, they could only say that it was 99.9 percent safe,” Covert said, adding that everything inside the building had potentially been exposed to the microscopic bacterium.
In the cracks crisscrossing a concrete floor or in a building’s ventilation system, the bacterium can wait, dormant, for years until it finds its way into a warm, moist environment like the mucus membrane of a human.
Since its closure, Building 470 has served as a “showplace to the world that we no longer have a biological weapons program,” Covert said.
When there was still such a program, two Fort Detrick workers died from inhalation anthrax, the same cause of death for an American Media Inc. worker in Florida Oct. 5. The first Detrick anthrax casualty was a microbiologist in 1951, and the other, an electrician, in 1958, said Covert.
It is unlikely that the buildings where anthrax has been found in Florida, New York and Washington, D.C., would meet the same fate as the Anthrax Tower. However, the Associated Press reported Thursday that AMI will not return to its Boca Raton, Fla., office and is looking for new space. AMI could not be reached for comment.
“I don’t think they should have a big problem with (the decontamination of) a building,” said Dr. Michael Donnenberg, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“Spores can remain viable for a very long time,” he said, but even if they were in aerosol form and spread into a building’s ventilation system, eventually they would settle and the surfaces could be decontaminated.
There are four chemical solutions that the Environmental Protection Agency, which is handling decontamination, could use on areas exposed to anthrax, spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said.
One of the most common is a sodium hypochlorite solution similar to household bleach. Others include soy emulsion, Sandia foam and seldom-used formaldehyde.
After cleanup, “the risk is low” of contracting the disease, said Dr. Joseph Barbera, co-director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University. “The question is how low is acceptable?”
“Anthrax is a bacteria. It’s something that can be rationally evaluated and dealt with,” Barbera said.
It takes between 8,000 and 50,000 spores for someone to become ill from inhalation anthrax, Donnenberg said, and spores can only infect cutaneously through broken skin.
Those numbers are similar to results of testing on non-human primates at Fort Detrick in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Dr. Joseph Jemski found the effective lethal dose of spores for inhalation anthrax to be 12,000 to 15,000, Covert said.
At that time, huge brewing pots that look like those found in today’s microbreweries were used to produce large quantities of anthrax slurries, Covert said.
When President Richard Nixon signed a 1969 executive order ending the offensive biological weapons program, the Anthrax Tower’s usefulness came to an end.
Since the building, with catwalks instead of floors, would not be easily converted to another purpose and the threat of anthrax could not be totally eradicated, it has stood unused for decades.
“The only way it could be torn down would be to capsulize and implode it,” said Covert, who has heard rumors about a renovation or demolition.
Responsibility for the building now falls to the National Cancer Institute, which took over nearly 70 acres of facilities surrounding the ominous tower in 1976. NCI spokesman Bob Kuska refused to return phone calls to discuss the agency’s future plans for the building.
The NCI-Detrick research facilities have been a popular tour destination for groups from the former Soviet republics to see how investment made in biological weapons programs can be converted to productive and positive ventures.
Today the facility conducts groundbreaking research in the race to cure cancer and AIDS, but at the center, the Anthrax Tower “is like a big museum,” said Covert. “It doesn’t represent any danger to anyone.”