Winds of war: Researchers track airborne anthrax

A strikingly rapid and wide dispersion


Struck by the surprising level of aerosolization after merely opening an envelope, Canadian researchers are now using a spore surrogate to study how airborne anthrax silently spreads within an office building, Bioterrorism Watch has learned. Researchers are using Bacillus globigii spores to simulant the movements of Bacillus anthracis in a one-story research building at the Defence Research Establishment Suffield (DRES) at the Canadian Forces Base in Suffield, Alberta, says Kent Harding, chief scientist at DRES. 

"We will be looking at movement between actual offices along corridors using the B. globigii as a simulant. It is a spore-like material that is a well-accepted simulant used to assess and challenge biological detection apparatus." The DRES is on the cutting edge of bioterrorism research; scientists there were studying the dispersion of anthrax from envelopes prior to Sept. 11 and its aftermath. In response to an anthrax hoax mailing in Canada in February 2001, the DRES conducted a study last year using an 1,800 cubic foot test chamber to represent an office space. "We had a hoax letter in this country that closed down a major federal office building," he says. "We were interested in [determining] had it been a real infectious material in the envelope, what was the extent of the risk? We went to the scientific literature and really didn’t find anything."

It was hypothesized that opening an envelope constituted a "passive form of dissemination" that would produce minimum aerosolization of spores unless additional energy was added via panic behavior or strong airflows, the researchers stated.1

"Our scenario was in a chamber, which was conducive to studying the movement of materials on air currents." Harding says. "An individual was given a stack of envelopes and told to keep opening them until powder fell out. When that happened, [he or she] stood quietly by the desk and didn’t move for 10 minutes. We just looked at the movement of material around the room, just simply as a consequence of opening the envelope and pulling out a piece of standard 8½ by 11 paper folded in three." Almost immediately upon opening the envelope, a significant aerosol concentration was observed in the area of the "desk." It declined slowly over the 10-minute sampling period, but the high-resolution slit sampler plates used to measure the release became densely packed with bacterial colonies. In the study, significant numbers of respirable aerosol particles were released upon opening envelopes containing 0.1 g or 1.0 g of B. globigii spores. A potentially deadly dose could be inhaled within seconds of opening an anthrax spore-filled envelope. Also, the aerosol quickly spread throughout the room so that other workers, depending on their exact locations and the directional airflow within the office, would likely inhale doses. There was very heavy contamination on the back and front of clothing worn by the test subject.

"There was a large dose presented to the person opening the envelope, which was not unexpected," Harding says. "But what was surprising was the very rapid and extensive movement around that room simply as consequence of the movement of normal air currents. It distributed around the room very quickly and in fairly high quantity."

The researchers also found that the spores could escape from a sealed envelope, a phenomenon that caught U.S. investigators off-guard during the 2001 attacks. "We did note that in a standard envelope sealed in the usual way — just with licking the glue on the back of — that there are substantial openings on the back of the envelope," he says. "In fact, the envelope people’ design them that way so you can get a letter opener inside. Spores did escape from those openings, but we never quantified that and never referred to it to anything more than an anecdotal manner."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta was apparently unaware of the study during the initial stages of the U.S. anthrax attacks. Whether it would have made any difference is impossible to say, though some wonder if it would have resulted in more aggressive treatment of postal workers.2 Regardless, the CDC decision to administer antibiotics to a broad range of people, not just those in the immediate exposure area, is reinforced by the study, Hawkins says. The Canadian researchers have now fully briefed the CDC about the study and their ongoing research.


1. Defence Research Establishment Suffield. Kournikakis B, Armour SJ, Boulet CA, et al. Risk assessment of anthrax threat letters. September 2001. Technical Report DRES TR-2001-048.

2. Brown D. Agency with most need didn’t get anthrax data. Washington Post, Feb. 11, 2002:A/03.