Anthrax: False alarms take toll on tired crews : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Headline: False alarms take toll on tired crews

Source: Washington Times, 16 October 2001


People are crying "anthrax" too often, officials say, and they are urging people to use common sense before calling out exhausted teams of experts to examine piles of ordinary dust, baby powder or blackboard chalk.

Scares and false alarms were reported around the world yesterday.

• In Australia, buildings including U.S. and British consulates were hit by anthrax hoaxes, forcing authorities to step up security amid mounting concern over bioterrorism.

• Brazil's Ministry of Defense asked that a Lufthansa plane found carrying a suspicious white powder be grounded until laboratory tests conclude whether the substance is anthrax.

•A dozen persons in France have been placed under medical observation as a precaution after being in contact with suspicious mail, but the country has "no authenticated, diagnosed cases" of anthrax, a health minister said.

•In the Czech town of Karlovy Vary, three persons were sprayed with disinfectant after a suspicious letter was discovered among mail sent to a shop.

•Portions of the Parliament Buildings in the Canadian capital of Ottawa were sealed off amid concerns of anthrax contamination. No anthrax was officially detected.

•In the United States, a Continental Airlines flight from Las Vegas carrying 155 persons was quarantined at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport due to concerns that there might be anthrax aboard. According to Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White's office, a flight attendant for the flight discovered a suspicious white powder on the plane and notified the captain.

New York officials said the anthrax scare in the city is causing panic, warning that emergency services were being flooded by false alarms and hoax packages.

"People are kind of panicking. Relax," New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik told a news conference. "We got a call this morning about some dust coming from a bridge. It was concrete; there are construction workers working."

With 12 persons testing positive for exposure to the bacteria in New York and Florida, U.S. public officials tried to rein in the public's growing fear at home and abroad.

"We're having to walk this very fine line between prudence and panic," D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said. "We need cooler heads to prevail."

For example, rescue workers in Montgomery County came running yesterday when someone grew frightened over what turned out to be granules of Sweet'n Low on the hood of a car.

"Rule out the obvious" before calling in a cavalry of public-safety persons, said Pete Piringer, spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services. "People should know what [looks] familiar and what [doesn´t]."

Emergency workers in the Washington area are trained to remain at a high state of readiness and to respond to the growing number of calls with machinelike intensity. This can get tiring as calls increase.

"Once you call, we respond at a fairly high level," Mr. Piringer said. And that means dozens of firefighters, hazardous-materials experts and heavy equipment will be called out, areas will be sealed off, and the crews will treat the package — whether it is a possible bomb or object containing biological or chemical agents — as if the incident were "the real thing."

Mr. Etter described one case in which a jokester threw white powder on someone. The victim called rescue workers, who came running. The powder turned out to be harmless. The man who threw it was not caught.

D.C. police say those arrested for such hoaxes could be charged with simple assault or disturbing the peace.

A spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said people don't know much about anthrax.

"They are not used to seeing [anthrax]. If they saw a bomb, they would know what to do," Tony Bullock said. "People are using talcum powder in the bathroom and then someone comes in afterward and they see the powder and [grow] concerned," he said.

From Oct. 1 to Oct. 11, D.C. police responded to 24 bomb threats and 110 suspicious-package calls. No bombs or anthrax were found. Typically, officers get two or three bomb threats and one or two suspicious-package calls in a 10-day stretch.

Among the calls yesterday:

• Fairfax County Fire and Rescue workers were summoned to the Merrifield Post Office at 2:30 a.m. by two postal employees who found a regular white envelope leaking a white powdery substance. Spokesman Dan Schmidt said the two employees were decontaminated.

Field tests showed the powder was not anthrax. The envelope may have contained an illegal substance, however. It was turned over to the FBI for further investigation.

Douglas Bem, spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said he couldn't comment on whether X-ray screening for powdery substances in the mail has led to an increased detection of narcotics because it could jeopardize ongoing investigations.

•At 7 a.m., D.C. Fire and Rescue crew hazardous-material teams were called to the post office on 31st Street in Georgetown, where postal workers found another letter that was leaking a powdery substance. Authorities declined to say what the substance was, only that it was not anthrax.

An hour later, a team rushed to the Department of Agriculture, where someone had discovered a powdery substance in the bathroom. It turned out to be a piece of drywall.

• In Charlottesville, a suspicious pink powder collected from the steps of the University of Virginia's Madison Hall on Saturday turned out to be chalk dust. Two UVa. security guards exposed to the chalk dust were taken to a local hospital.

• The FBI is investigating 19 letters claiming to contain anthrax that were sent to abortion clinics in Maryland and Delaware.

The letters were among 90 containing white powder received yesterday by Planned Parenthood centers nationwide. Twenty others were sent to independent abortion clinics, according to a statement by the National Abortion Federation.

Two of the envelopes, including one from this region, have been tested by local health and law-enforcement agencies. Neither contained anthrax, officials determined.

• The Baltimore Harbor Tunnel was closed in both directions for more than an hour last night after a motorist noticed white powder in the southbound tube, police said.

The substance, later determined to be salt, was spotted between 9:30 and 10 p.m., Cpl. Gregory Prioleau of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police said.

Dump trucks hauling salt went through the tunnel Friday night, Cpl. Prioleau said. But the Baltimore Fire Department and the Maryland Department of the Environment were called in as a precaution.

-- Andre Weltman (, October 16, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ