Responding to worried residents

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

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

Hazardous materials crews in the region 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.

While authorities have responded to hundreds of calls from concerned residents this week, no anthrax cases have been found in Maryland as of yesterday.

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

"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 out 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 - 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 handled 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.

"We had a 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 stack of newspapers Monday at a Glen Burnie 7-Eleven store was negative. Crews suspect it was cigarette ash.

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

Anne Arundel County fire officials had sent a full multi-vehicle hazardous materials crew to each suspicious package as if it were potentially explosive. But this week, they added another 911 dispatcher to help screen calls and in certain cases, they began sending just one fire engine and one police officer.

Authorities say most people making calls truly believe they're in danger. But officials suspect several have been hoaxes, including one yesterday in Crofton. That incident resulted in the area's first arrests in connection with a hoax.

Two 14-year-old boys are accused of filling a letter addressed to the White House with kitty litter and leaving it near a refuse bin - a joke that didn't go over well with authorities.

Investigators found a bag of kitty litter and quickly determined that it was the same substance that spilled out of the letter. Two boys questioned by police were charged last night in juvenile citations with the hoax, Scholz said.

Meanwhile, calls keep coming.

Baltimore's 911 dispatchers have received more than 140 calls of suspicious materials since last week. Howard County has received more than 100 calls since Friday

Harford and Carroll counties have received about a half-dozen reports each day. And Baltimore County hazardous material crews are responding to 15 to 30 a day - after screening.

With the reports of more people being exposed to anthrax in Washington and New York this week - local authorities said they were braced for even more calls in the coming days.

Last week, Howard County checked out five or six calls a day. By Wednesday, it was 29. Arundel had 47 on that day while Baltimore had 63.

And, said Arundel Police Lt. Joseph Jordan, "This problem could escalate before it gets better."

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