Anthrax hall open to public for months

Dr Colin Ramsay
Dr Colin Ramsay

By Paul Thornton

A VILLAGE hall contaminated by deadly anthrax spores lay open to the public for months while the home of a man who died from the poison was sealed off despite no trace of the substance ever being found there.

Mourners who attended the wake of Pascal Norris were tracked down and prescribed antibiotics, while a two-metre high fence cordoned off his home in the Scottish Borders for months to allow hundreds of samples to be taken.

The artist and woodworker was 50 years old when he died from septicaemia in July 2006 – an NHS Borders report later concluded that anthrax was the most likely cause.

Tests later showed that African drums used in a class he had been attending had tested positive for anthrax – which is sometimes found on the skins of wild animals in Africa.

But, giving evidence at a fatal accident inquiry into Pascal’s death, Health Protection Scotland (HPS) consultant, Dr Colin Ramsay revealed the theory that Pascal had been exposed to anthrax during his time at the classes was only their THIRD line of enquiry.

And the Smailholm Village Hall, where some of the classes were held and traces of anthrax were later found, was open for use by the public for over five months after the death of Pascal.

The hall, also in the Scottish Borders, was eventually decontaminated nine months after Pascal’s death.

Dr Ramsay, who headed up the investigation for HPS revealed that after anthrax had been identified as the probable cause of Pascal’s death an investigation was launched to track down the source of the toxic spores.

He said: “There was much more concern about the possibility of danger of contamination at Black Lodge than at Smailholm.

“Until the time that there was positive confirmation of anthrax in late November it remained open to the public.”

But, Dr Ramsay said, suspician fell on the home of Pascal as a likely source of anthrax.

The 52-year-old consultant said: “We knew that he had prepared animal skins and that a skin that he had split and he was working on another skin to replace it.

“The original hypothesis was that he would be most likely to be exposed at his workshop.

“We considered a number of options including his rural lifestyle.

“We were aware that he had started drumming in 2006 and he had been using drums in the drumming class and it was a possibility he may have acquired it there.”

But because the manner of Pascal’s death revealed it was likely he died from inhalation of the viral spores, and because there were no recorded cases of contracting anthrax in this manner from merely playing drums, the investigation into the classes were not treated as a priority.

Instead HPS investigated Pascal’s own workshop and home as the most probable cause of his death because he made and repaired drums and treated animal skins there.

And just over a month after his death his Black Lodge home in Stobbs was sealed off while the Health Protection Agency and an American company called Sabre took around 150 samples for testing.

Dr Ramsay said: “Black Lodge was sealed off on Friday 11 (of August) and measures were put in place to get the family out the house.

“Two metre high fencing was put up to make sure no one else could get access.

“An extensive contact tracing exercise was carried out to identify anyone who had been in the property within 28 days (of Pascal’s death).”

This included mourners who attended Pascal’s wake, which was held at Black Lodge where his ashes were scattered.

They were contacted and offered antibiotics as a prevention in case they had been exposed to anthrax.

Meanwhile the teacher who ran the classes in and around the Scottish Borders was interviewed and had her drums tested.

Initial tests proved negative for anthrax but later samples, the results of which were not known until October, found contamination in the house where she lived in Smailholm and a new address where she had moved to in Belford, Northumberland.

A van used to transport the drums to and from class also showed signs of the spores while the floor, seat covers and the broom used to sweep the floor of the village hall also tested positive.

Dr Ramsay said: “We revisited the strategy about Belford and Samilholm and concluded we had to do more extensive sampling.

“The consensus seemed to be that the levels of contamination found were relatively low for that reason the Belford site was not sealed off, neither was the Farmhouse at Smailholm.”

But Dr Ramsay defended the investigations, insisting that it had been a complex process where the agencies involved had followed available guidance.

He said that the spores found in the village hall would not have been a danger unless they were agitated and inhaled and that, had other anthrax cases been linked to the hall then the risk assessment would have been different.

The inquiry, at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, continues.