You Can't Iron Out the Anthrax

The Difficulties of Decontamination

The specter of Gruinard Island, the World War II site for secret British anthrax experiments, must be haunting our leaders even though they haven't mentioned it.

Sixty sheep were killed there during anthrax tests in 1941. In 1971, tests revealed still viable spores just below the surface of the island's soil that could be spread by earthworms. A warning sign was posted: ". . . the ground is contaminated with anthrax and dangerous."

By 1981, persons unknown demanded the British government decontaminate the island, and made sure their request got noticed by filling a couple ten-pound packages with still spore-laden soil and directing authorities to them.

Eventually, Gruinard was de-anthraxed with a mixture of seawater and formaldehyde. But would you go on holiday there?

The U.S. government indicates it can sanitize buildings contaminated with small quantities of anthrax. But citizens who have seen or heard of colleagues struck down by inhaled anthrax may not be persuaded. National Enquirer abandoned the American Media building and emblazoned the first issue after evacuation with the notice: "This paper not printed in the state of Florida."

If more anthrax is dispensed across the nation, depending upon how the government proceeds, we may find that not only can anthrax be used to kill but to also, through a mixture of fear and scientific uncertainty, effectively condemn contaminated places.

All of which makes current recommendations (or predatory advertisements) on how to sterilize mail risible. Google searches for "anthrax" displayed ads from autoclave salesmen as late as Monday. At $2800 cheap, the ads did not explain the technique a homeowner might employ to avoid exposure while getting the mail into the autoclave. Or how to fit the mailbox into the autoclave. Or what to do, what to do, if one has a mail slot. Or that if one were going to ruin a portion of the mail through treatment with superheated steam, it would be simply easier to inform the post office that one did not wish to receive mail period.

Dubious information that ironing the mail was an option also surfaced. Dubious because an autoclave is a pressure vessel which sterilizes through the application of superheated steam at 121.5 degrees Celsius. It takes 15 to 30 minutes to destroy bacterial spores in this process. A household iron is not an autoclave. Indeed, with evidence accumulating that squashing a letter containing anthrax spores in a mail sorting machine results in very bad news, the use of a household iron would seem to fit into the category of excessively uncool advice.

Ironing the mail came to us courtesy of the testimony of Ken Alibek, one of the supervisors of the Soviet Cold War bioweapons program, during a hearing chaired by congressional representative Chris Shays. For Alibek, the business of anthrax has been very, very good. When there was no more profit in making biological weapons for the crumbling Soviet Union, Alibek came to the United States and was set up by the U.S. government as a consultant on bioterror defense. As to actual defense of the healing kind, Alibek has been unrevealing, if one takes his writings in evidence. His book, Biohazard, devotes almost no space to the subject—a few pages of nondescript mumble about stimulating the immune system with things like interferon. At this juncture, this advice holds little for people who actually have anthrax. A page at the very end of the book expresses slight regret over a career spent as a servant to morally and intellectually rotten science.

Alibek had his own equivalent of Gruinard Island called Rebirth—rebirth into the oblivion, perhaps, since at least a couple of people appear to have died as a result of testing on it. Located in the Aral Sea, it is another place condemned by anthrax and, worse, a place that apparently no one, including Alibek, ever saw fit to "iron."

 
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