Test pits bug killer against Anthrax
Idea offered for cleaning AMI building
February 27, 2003
Neil Santinello and Kathy Bushouse
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Researchers will fill a Davie trailer with a bug-killing gas on Friday to try to show that it's also an ideal anthrax killer, an experiment being closely watched by federal environmental officials and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
The test, which will bathe harmless bacteria used as a surrogate for anthrax spores with a gas called methyl bromide, is being done with guidance from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which provided $70,000 for the research.
Nelson, D-Florida, key in getting Congress to agree to buy the anthrax-contaminated American Media Inc. building in Boca Raton and cover cleanup costs, plans to stop by the test site Friday at the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, officials said.
Those carrying out the test -- UF entomologist Rudolph Scheffrahn and his partner, Mark Weinberg, a Lauderhill exterminator -- contend they could employ methyl bromide to rid the quarantined AMI offices of anthrax for $2 million, one-tenth of the federal government's estimate of $20 million.
That is possible, they say, because methyl bromide is cheaper, easier and faster to deploy than chlorine dioxide, the chemical used to rid post offices of anthrax. Also, they say it won't corrode or damage electronics and other office equipment as does the more-corrosive chlorine dioxide.
Friday's trial -- funded with an EPA Small Business Innovation Research Grant given to Weinberg's company, Cobra Termite Control -- will be the second fumigation to test methyl bromide's potential to dispatch anthrax. It follows an initial test about a year ago on the same mobile home that Scheffrahn deemed a success.
"We're paying attention, and we're interested," said Jeff Kempter, senior adviser for the anti-microbials division of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs. "The EPA does support exploring new technologies for home and security purposes, such as this one."
Methyl bromide has long been used to control farm pests, and once was a preferred termite fumigant. Its uses are evaporating though: One of a group of chemicals depleting Earth's protective ozone layer, methyl bromide is gradually being phased out of many applications. Now the UF project is promoting it as a countermeasure to anthrax contamination, and the federal government probably would make its use legal for such an emergency, Scheffrahn said.
For the new test -- which mimics classic fumigation used in tented buildings -- methyl bromide will be injected into a triple-sealed mobile home containing three types of bacteria "with very tough spore coats" more resistant to chemicals and harsh environmental conditions than anthrax, but of no danger to people, Scheffrahn said.
"The general dogma is if you kill those things, you will kill any bacteria, including anthrax," Scheffrahn said.
The gas will sit for 48 hours in the tented structure, which will have computers and other normal office items along with 80 million spores on paper strips. The gas should then infiltrate every nook and cranny where spores have been tucked, Scheffrahn said.
The gas will then be released from the building, but using "scrubbers" that will try to render most of it harmless before entry into the atmosphere, Kempter said. The spores will be gathered and sent to two laboratories to see if any are alive following treatment.
The EPA is not saying much about methyl bromide's potential as a cleanup agent, but is waiting to digest the results, Kempter said. If the research pans out, the gas could join three other chemicals employed as anthrax cleanup tools: chlorine dioxide, paraformaldehyde and vaporized hydrogen peroxide, he said. The EPA won't single out any one as the agency's preferred anthrax neutralizer, he said. EPA officials only review and approve anthrax cleanup technologies for use by others.
"They all have their unique characteristics, plusses and minuses," Kempter said.
A UF spokeswoman said Nelson would visit the test site at noon Friday, before the fumigation begins, to talk about the fumigant's anthrax-destroying prospects.
"It would be significant savings," Nelson aide Gretchen Hitchner said.
Congress approved a measure this month for the federal government to take ownership of the AMI building and shoulder cleanup expenses. It was signed by President Bush.
Now AMI has 12 months to officially offer to sell the property to the federal General Services Administration. If the federal agency determines the private sector cannot dispose of hazardous waste from the cleanup, and the building is declared a public health hazard, the purchase will proceed.
Decontaminating the 700,000-square-foot Brentwood postal center in Washington, D.C., cost $100 million. It cost $23 million to clean the 3,000-square-foot office suite of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Chlorine dioxide gas was used to clean both buildings.
Cleanup estimates for AMI have ranged from $7 million from a private firm to the federal government's $20 million.
Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams said the city has received five or six unsolicited offers from private firms that claim they can clean up the AMI building, and he's forwarded all those offers to AMI. AMI officials were at a meeting in California on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.