Responding to worries

Fear: Life is hectic for area emergency crews working to address concerns about anthrax.

October 19, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Before noon yesterday, Howard County Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Eric D. Proctor had fielded three calls for mysterious white powder, including one from a shipping company worried about a substance inside a trailer that originated in Israel and another from Ann's House of Nuts in Jessup, where an employee had been spooked by a sprinkling near her desk.

"It doesn't matter what it is - coffee creamer, sugar, chalk, anything - we have to treat every call like it's the real deal," Proctor said on the way to his second call about a powdery substance that day.

Life has changed radically in the past week for emergency crews across the state, who are being asked to address creeping fears in this new age of bioterrorism. While authorities have responded to hundreds of calls from concerned residents this week, no anthrax cases have been found in Maryland as of yesterday.

In the past week, local hazardous materials crews have been called to field test a white substance on a pizza box that turned out to be flour. They've been asked to investigate a white scuff on a suitcase. And they've been directed to residue between a stack of newspapers that was in all likelihood cigarette ash - not anthrax.

Overwhelmed by numerous reports of suspicious packages and mysterious white powder, some local authorities began this week issuing safety advisories and screening 911 calls.

"We want to mix common sense with caution," said Anne Arundel County Fire Division Chief John M. Scholz, who compiled an information sheet about suspicious packages and anthrax exposure that will be distributed by firefighters or mailed this weekend.

"There's a great deal of paranoia," he said, "and we're hoping to alleviate some of people's fears."

In Anne Arundel County - home to the National Security Agency, Fort Meade and Baltimore-Washington International Airport - the Fire Department normally responds to about four calls for evacuations because of suspicious packages in a typical week. In the past six days, they've responded to more than 170.

"We have to expect some of this," Scholz said. "And we do want people to use caution."

However, authorities said, they don't want people to call 911 and race to police stations every time they receive a piece of junk mail.

More than one person has called 911 to report white powder in bathrooms that turned out to be residue from a cleaner, authorities said.

One call this week was from a Howard County man who wanted to report a suspicious egg in his driveway. He was concerned because the eggshell was unbroken.

"We had one person call 911 to ask if you contract anthrax over the telephone," Scholz said. "We need to educate people. I think we can minimize some of the hysteria with good facts."

Julianne Thomas of Odenton wasn't hysterical, but when she saw a white mark on her luggage after returning from a visit with her mother in Texas, she was suspicious.

She hadn't noticed the mark at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, so as her young children slept, Thomas and her husband dialed 911.

"My husband and I didn't know what it was," said Thomas. "It was better to be safe than sorry."

In most cases, firefighters scrape off a sample of any suspicious material, mix it with distilled water using an eyedropper, and then place it on a test tray soaked with a special solution.

After 15 minutes, lines will appear on the card if a toxin or poison is present.

The test was negative in Thomas' case. Authorities said it was probably a scuff mark caused by another piece of luggage.

At Brooklyn Park Middle School, cafeteria workers noticed a white powder in the bottom of a box of frozen pizzas. It looked like flour, Principal Brenda L. Hurbanis said yesterday. But, she said, "Given the times, we weren't sure."

Within a few minutes, a hazardous material crew ruled out anthrax. It was probably flour. Similar testing of a powder found in a stack of newspapers Monday at a Glen Burnie 7-Eleven store turned out negative. Crews suspect that was cigarette ash.

But as a precaution, all suspicious materials - including scores of letters and packages - are taken to a biohazard storage area and later incinerated, Scholz said.

In Savage yesterday, Corporate Express employees anxiously waited for Howard County emergency workers to arrive to check out a trailer. When they did, the manager apologized repeatedly for having to call them. "I didn't want to be one of those false alarms you hear so much about," she said.

But the circumstances were a bit suspicious: the trailer had been swept clean - except for the 4-inch-wide smear of powder along the inside edge.

Two firefighters dressed in white, garbage-bag-looking jumpsuits sprayed the substance, soaked it up with a big sponge and sealed it in a heavy-duty plastic bag. Later, Proctor told the worried employees the powder was printer toner.

The powder at Ann's House of Nuts turned out to be harmless.

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