The Tennessee Republican, who is a physician said, ”In my mind, at 1:30 a.m., the definitive test, called polymerase chain reaction, PCR, said it was ricin for sure.”
None of the deadly substance was discovered outside his office, Frist told his colleagues as the Senate opened its session Tuesday morning.
“All air sampling and all environmental studies today are negative with the exception of what was found in that single office at that site,” he said. Frist’s office is located in the Dirksen Senate office building.
“Somebody in all likelihood manufactured this with intent to harm,” Frist said. “This is a criminal investigation and will be investigated as such,” he added.
Three Senate office buildings — the Hart, Dirksen and Russell — were closed Tuesday, forcing the cancellation of committee meetings scheduled in those locations. Authorities plan to collect and test all mail that has been delivered there. Capitol police have advised all lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill not to open any mail.
The Capitol itself remains open, but all tours have been cancelled, said Bob Stevenson, Frist’s spokesman.
At least 16 people, including several members of Frist’s staff, went through decontamination procedures, but no one reported being sick, according to police. Capitol police urged anyone who was in the area to contact Senate officials.
Congressional officials said police shut down the ventilation system and moved the mailroom employees to another room in the building for medical supervision.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday called it somewhat reassuring that none of the 16 people who underwent decontamination became sick from exposure to the ricin powder.
“As each minute ticks by, we are less and less concerned about the health effects,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, the CDC director, said. If the ricin were pure, she said, “We would expect very early onset. The fact that we haven’t seen that is reassuring.”
Gerberding said the CDC’s laboratories in Atlanta and Washington were conducting “gold standard” tests that involve innoculating lab animals to confirm initial results.
News of the discovery of the suspicious powder surfaced late Monday, marking the second time a lethal toxin was discovered in congressional offices. In 2001, anthrax-laced letters addressed to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., shut down Congress briefly and closed the Hart building for months of decontamination. Five people died and 17 others became sick nationwide after coming into contact with the letters containing anthrax. No one was ever arrested in those incidents.
In Connecticut, meanwhile, a postal worker found an unidentified powder leaking out of an envelope addressed to the Republican National Committee. Inspectors are still working to identify the substance. The powder was found late Monday at the Wallingford postal sorting facility, the same location where anthrax spores were found in 2001.