Florida Anthrax Investigation

The disclosure comes as the FBI continues an investigation into whether anthrax was intentionally released into the area.

The FBI has sealed off the offices of American Media Inc., where Robert Stevens, the first person in 25 years to die from a rare inhaled form of anthrax in the U.S., worked as a photographer for The Sun tabloid newspaper

Co-workers lined up to get tested Monday after anthrax spores were discovered in the nasal passages of another man who worked in the mailroom of the same building, and on Stevens’ keyboard.

How the deadly bacterium got into the newspaper’s office remains unknown. However, federal investigators have eliminated the obvious environmental sources of anthrax, said Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In Washington, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said CDC officials told him the chances of a natural cause was “nil to none.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft said the case was close to becoming a clear criminal investigation, but stopped short of calling it terrorism.

“We don’t have enough information to know whether this could be related to terrorism or not,” he said during a news conference in Washington.

The Palm Beach County Health Department tested 743 people connected to the building on Monday and expected an additional 100 people on Tuesday, said Alina Alonso, the department’s director of clinical services.

Anthrax is not contagious, but all 300 people who work in the AMI building were advised to get tested and start taking antibiotics, as well as anyone who spent more than an hour in the building since Aug. 1. While they waited, AMI workers filled out a form that included the question “have you noticed any unusual activity since September 11.”

The second person who tested positive for the anthrax bacteria was identified as 73-year-old Ernesto Blanco. Health officials said he had anthrax bacteria in his nasal passages, but he did not have the clinical disease.

Blanco happened to be in a Miami-area hospital for an unrelated heart problem, and was tested for anthrax when it became clear he worked in the same building as the man who died from the disease. He is in stable condition, authorities said.

Elsewhere, a hospital in Manassas contacted Virginia’s health department about a possible anthrax diagnosis after a patient said he worked in a building affiliated with American Media Inc. Preliminary tests for anthrax came back negative.

Only 18 cases of inhalation anthrax were reported in the United States during the 20th century, the most recent in 1976 in California. Anthrax can be contracted from farm animals or soil, but most cases involve a less serious form that is contracted through the skin.

State epidemiologist Dr. Steven Wiersma said tests will help determine whether the anthrax found in Blanco’s nose was natural or genetically engineered. The bacteria in Stevens’ blood responded to penicillin, suggesting that it was natural.

News of the disease has set off fears of bio-terrorism, particularly because suspected Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta rented planes four times in August at a nearby flight school, according to Marian Smith, the school’s owner. Stevens’ Lantana home was within a mile of the airport.