Bacteria detected in East King County air, but poses no health threat

July 26, 2011

By Staff

NEW — 1:45 p.m. July 26, 2011

Monitors detected a bacteria capable of causing infectious tularemia in a daily air sample from East King County on Monday, but public health officials said the bacteria level is low, close to the detection limit and does not pose a threat.

Officials said a later test detected none of the bacteria in the air.

Since establishing a federal air-monitoring system in 2003, similar positive test results related to the naturally occurring bacteria have been common elsewhere in the United States. The bacteria detection Monday is the first time a sample in the Puget Sound area tested positive.

The bacteria, Francisella tularensis, is found throughout Washington and is commonly carried by rabbits, squirrels and other rodents. Tularemia rarely infects people. Only one to 10 human cases occur statewide in a typical year.

The positive sample came from a filter collected Monday morning. Officials immediately collected a subsequent sample from the same station Monday evening. The sample did not detect any bacteria.

State and local health and safety officials continue to monitor the situation. Officials said no signs of illnesses have been reported in the area.

The air-monitoring system is called BioWatch, a federal program operating nationwide in major metropolitan areas.

The program routinely collects and tests air samples for trace amounts of biologic material possibly related to intentional attacks or natural occurrences. The program includes several monitors in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, but officials withhold specific locations for security purposes.

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