WASHINGTON - A powdery substance suspected to be the poison ricin was discovered yesterday in a Capitol Hill mailroom near the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, raising new fears of bioterrorism.
Several tests found the white powder to be ricin, a potentially deadly toxin derived from castor beans, and additional tests were being conducted.
At a late night Capitol Hill news conference, Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said the incident was being investigated as a crime.
Frist, a physician who has written about bioterrorism, sought to reassure Capitol Hill staffers that all precautions were being taken.
There was no evidence that any of the powder had been inhaled, he said, noting that the symptoms of exposure typically would appear in four to eight hours.
"We're beyond the eight hours of exposure, and everybody is just fine," he said.
The chief of the Capitol Police, Terrance W. Gainer, said his officers were called to the office - "a large room used to handle mail" - around 3 p.m. yesterday. It was not clear where the powder came from, he said.
Gainer said the results of a definitive test would be available early this morning.
Sixteen people in the room where the powder was found have been decontaminated, Gainer said.
If injected, a dose of ricin the size of a head of a pin can kill an adult.
Ricin is hard to disperse, and is therefore not a particularly effective bioterrorism weapon if the goal is to kill large numbers of people. However, it is easy to make and to store, and al-Qaida manuals found in Afghanistan in November 2001 reportedly described how to manufacture the toxin.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.