The U.S. State Department says there is evidence an anthrax tainted letter has been sent to the department and remains hidden amid thousands of unopened letters impounded since last month.
Although the nationwide alarm over anthrax-contaminated mail has subsided, the State Department says tests of its postal facilities continue to test positive for anthrax contamination, suggesting that a tainted letter remains somewhere in its mail system.
Briefing reporters in Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday there have been positive anthrax readings from eight of 55 tests at the department's mail receiving facility in a Virginia suburb of Washington.
He said experts are assuming from the test results that at least one anthrax letter passed through the facility and is now hidden among scores of bags of unopened letters in State Department mailrooms which have been sealed off since late last month. "If the letter had reached its intended recipient, it would have been reported by now, either as a white-powder letter or somebody getting sick," Mr. Boucher said. "So, because it's been three weeks, we have to assume that we've stopped it, we've stuck it in our system where all the mail is sealed, and we have to presume that we'll be able to find whatever it is."
One State Department mail handler has recovered after becoming ill with the inhalation form of anthrax last month.
Officials have thus far confirmed three anthrax letters nationwide, one each sent to Senate majority leader Thomas Daschle, the NBC television network in New York, and the New York Post newspaper.
A tabloid newspaper publisher in Florida is also believed to have been targeted, although the anthrax letter apparently sent there has not been found.
Health officials say 17 people have fallen ill with anthrax since the postal incidents began in September and there have been four fatalities.
The anthrax letters have contained language suggesting an Islamic or Middle Eastern connection.
But there is no confirmed link between the mailings and a foreign terrorist organization, and officials have theorized in recent days that the letters posted in New Jersey may be the work of a disgruntled individual with a scientific background.