WASHINGTON # Much of the U.S. Senate will be shut down Tuesday following the discovery a day before of suspected deadly toxin ricin in the mailroom of Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Senate’s Web site said.
Frist’s office said the Senate will convene as scheduled Tuesday morning. Nevertheless, all hearings have been canceled, U.S. Capitol Police said.
“The Capitol will be open for essential personnel only,” according to a statement on the Web site, which said the Hart, Dirksen and Russell Senate office buildings will be closed Tuesday and all tours canceled until further notice.
Mail delivery to the House of Representatives also was suspended Tuesday, according to a memo from the House leadership. In addition, security forces are conducting increased surveillance at the Pentagon in response to the possible ricin scare, a spokesman said.
Preliminary tests on a white powdery substance found Monday in Frist’s mailroom indicate the presence of ricin, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer and Frist said.
Frist said he considers the incident a “terrorist activity.”
Of eight tests conducted Monday, six were positive for the toxin, with a ninth and final test due Tuesday.
“From a scientific standpoint, this is ricin,” Frist said. “It is in all likelihood sent with intent to harm.”
The substance was found about 3 p.m. ET Monday on the south side of the fourth floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Gainer said the 16 people exposed were decontaminated late Monday as a precautionary measure.
“Most importantly, nobody has been hurt,” Frist said. “Everybody is fine. There have been absolutely no injuries whatsoever.”
Gainer said the envelope or package the powder came from has not been identified.
“When our personnel went in there # it is a large mailroom # there was a lot of mail,” he said. “There’s actually a lot of cuttings and different debris in there, and it was not clear that it came from any package or [from] what package it may have come.”
Ricin was found in a letter in October at a postal handling facility in Greenville, South Carolina, and the FBI has offered a $100,000 reward in that case. The typewritten letter was addressed to the Department of Transportation and demanded that changes in truckers’ sleep/work schedules not be implemented.
In addition, the FBI has in the past notified state and local law enforcement about the possible use of ricin by terrorists. Ricin is an extremely deadly poison derived from the castor bean plant.
There is no known antidote, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One milligram of ricin, a dose the size of the head of a pin, can kill an adult.
In 2001, the Dirksen Senate Office Building was closed because of the deadly mailings of anthrax-laced letters that killed five people nationwide. Its offices were closed for days while authorities cleaned its mailroom, which had received one of the letters. The case has not been solved.
House mail suspended
The House intends to meet on schedule Tuesday afternoon, according to a memo from House leadership distributed to arriving staff. House offices will be open, but mail deliveries have been suspended and Capitol Police are retrieving mail already delivered as a safeguard, the memo said.
Representatives and staffers were also directed not to touch any mail or trash cans, which were not emptied Monday night.
Suspicious letter in Connecticut
Connecticut and federal authorities said they are investigating a suspicious letter laced with white powder discovered at a postal facility Tuesday morning in Wallingford. The letter was addressed to the Republican National Committee, a postal inspector said.
A postal worker at the Wallingford postal distribution center reported the discovery just before 1 a.m. ET to his supervisor, who contacted police, said Lt. Glen King of the Wallingford Police Department.
The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and State Police rushed to the scene with a hazardous materials team, isolated the area where the letter was found and took it to the state laboratory in Hartford for testing, King said.
“All of this was put into effect as a precautionary measure,” King said.
“No one was taken to hospital, the facility was not evacuated and remains open though we did relocate workers from the area where the letter was discovered to other parts of the building,” King said.
Kevin McDonough, assistant postal inspector of the Boston, Massachusetts, division of the U.S. Postal Service, said the letter was a business reply envelope, typically used in fund raising, addressed to the Republican National Committee.