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Letter scrutinized as possible source of anthrax

BOCA RATON, Florida (CNN) -- Investigators are looking at whether a letter that came into the mailroom of a Florida tabloid publishing company could be the source of anthrax bacteria that killed an employee, a law enforcement source confirmed to CNN.

Employees at American Media Inc. are being tested for anthrax and given preventive antibiotics after the one worker died, another was exposed and traces of the deadly bacteria were found in a work station.

A worker exposed to the anthrax bacteria, who so far has not contracted the disease caused by it, worked in the mailroom. Anthrax was found in the work space of the employee who died.

The law enforcement source could provide no further details about the investigation into the letter.

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"As a health official, it's clearly worrying -- worrisome, especially when we have more than one individual [exposed]," Florida Health Secretary Dr. John Agwunobi told CNN's "Larry King Live." "However, we have no real answer as to how this has come about." At a news briefing Monday, Agwunobi said "no conclusions" have been reached about the origin of the anthrax found at the AMI building in Delray Beach, which has been sealed.

An FBI official told CNN that there no evidence so far that the anthrax exposure is related to a criminal or terrorist act. Anthrax is considered a potential agent in biological warfare.

Hijacking connection?

Law enforcement sources told CNN that investigators are checking materials left behind by the jet hijackers believed responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks to see if they contain traces of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that cause anthrax.

"We regard this as an investigation that could become a clear criminal investigation," said Attorney General John Ashcroft said, but added that he could not make a "conclusive statement" about the case without additional laboratory and investigative work.

The anthrax bacteria exposure may be traced to natural sources, but officials consider the situation "a source of concern," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.

Robert Stevens, 63, died Friday of inhalation of anthrax. He was a photo editor at The Sun, a supermarket tabloid published by AMI, which employs about 300 people. Traces of anthrax were found in his work station, according to both Agwunobi and AMI's chief executive, David Pecker.

Stevens lived about a mile from an air strip where Mohamed Atta, a suspected hijacker in the September 11 terrorist attacks, rented planes. AMI's offices are several miles from the strip.

Tests performed on Ernesto Blanco, 73, who worked in the company's mailroom, found that he had been exposed to the bacteria. He was hospitalized last week in Miami with pneumonia, but health officials said his illness is unrelated to the anthrax exposure.

Testing underway

As a precautionary measure, people who worked in the AMI building or visited it for extended periods of time are being tested for anthrax at a health center in Delray Beach. They are also being given antibiotics and health counseling.

"For obvious public health reasons, we have decided to evaluate, to investigate and to protect those individuals that work in that building [and] those individuals who may have visited that building for significant amounts of time," Agwunobi said. He termed the risk to AMI workers as "low."

Authorities are taking nose swabs and blood samples from people who worked in or visited the building. Test results from the nose swabs won't be available for several days; blood test results could take several weeks.

However, health officials have not been able to reach a few individuals who worked in the building, Agwunobi said. They are being asked to call (800) 342-3557.

FBI interested

Blanco was admitted to Cedars Medical Center in Dade County last week after feeling ill and exhibiting flu-like symptoms at work, Blanco's stepson, Raphael Miguel, told CNN . He felt so sick, Miguel said, that co-workers drove him home, two counties away.

Physicians conducted tests and began treating Blanco for pneumonia, but his case became more complex once the Stevens case came to light, said Miguel. FBI agents came to the hospital and questioned Blanco's wife "for hours," he said.

At the same time, the hospital ran tests and conducted a nasal passage swab to test for anthrax exposure, discovering anthrax spores in Blanco's nose. Blanco did not contract respiratory anthrax, hospital officials said, and so far has exhibited no clinical symptoms of the bacterium. Blanco was in stable condition Monday, officials said.

Agwunobi urged all employees and those who may have spent more than an hour in the building since August 1 to report for testing. Officials were conducting nasal swabs to determine exposure, and handing out an antibiotic which can decrease the risk of contracting anthrax.

People who were briefly in the building -- dropping off or picking up packages, for instance -- need not be tested, Agwunobi said.

Employees questioned

Employees were also being told to fill out a public health department questionnaire, detailing their visits the mail room, text or photo libraries.

Another question: "Since September 11, 2001, have you noticed any unusual occurrences at work?"

Stevens fell ill after a recent trip to North Carolina, but a Florida state epidemiologist said he did not believe Stevens contracted the disease during his trip. The incubation period for anthrax is between six and 45 days, a period which would not have included his trip.

As photo editor, Stevens worked on a number of stories but did not leave the building, officials said.

Anthrax most commonly occurs in cattle, sheep, goats, and other herbivores. Humans can become infected when they are exposed to infected animals or tissue from infected animals. It is not contagious from one person to another.

-- CNN Correspondents Kelli Arena and Mark Potter contributed to this report.


• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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