Five people died in the anthrax mailings of 2001. Since then, anyone receiving mail containing white powder, or a “suspicious package” of any kind, is automatically on high alert.
At the Florida state attorney’s office in West Palm Beach on Wednesday, three employees felt ill after an envelope in the mailroom released a white powdery substance. Testing has now shown that the powder was not hazardous, but even a false alarm can have real effects.
In the West Palm Beach episode, police, firefighters and paramedics were called. The entire second floor of the building was evacuated, and the first floor was closed. Part of a city block was closed to traffic. Three people with symptoms ranging from headaches to vomiting underwent a decontamination process and were hospitalized. A firefighter on the scene experienced cardiac problems and was also hospitalized. Samples of the powder were tested at the scene and sent to an FBI lab for further testing. Local television programming was interrupted with the breaking news.
All of this is, of course, standard protocol. A poster by the United States Postal Service warns that if a suspicious package is received, people should isolate the area, call 911, and wash their hands with soap and water. The CDC additionally suggests shutting off the ventilation system and creating a list of people who were in the area or may have handled the package. This level of vigilance and rigorous response can be difficult to maintain in the face of repeated false alarms.
It is unknown how often suspicious package evacuations occur, how often they turn out to be false alarms, and what the overall cost of these false alarms is to society. Under our current policy that all suspicious packages be treated as hazardous substances until proven otherwise, a lot of people may be left feeling like their health is at risk during the hours or days it can take to establish whether a substance is hazardous or non-hazardous. It’s important that we periodically evaluate policies like this one to make sure that the cost of false alarms is acceptable. We should also continue to explore new technologies that could reduce false alarms and even reduce the risk itself.