Bioterror mail threats continue to be reported

Feds outline action steps for local response

Public health and law enforcement officials recently declassified a report that reveals ongoing biological threats through the mail. A large number of potentially suspicious letters and packages continue to be reported to federal, state, and local law enforcement and emergency response agencies nationwide, the Nov. 2, 2004, report states. In some instances, these letters or packages may include powders, liquids, or other materials.

Since there often is an articulated threat, it is likely the substance was intentionally introduced into the package in an effort to validate that threat. An articulated threat itself (with or without the presence of a suspicious substance) is a federal crime and also may constitute a violation under state and local statutes.

According to the report, these are some of the key steps to take for a letter/container with unknown powderlike substance and a threatening communication (with or without illness in the recipient):

  • Request the assistance of the nearest certified hazardous materials response team to conduct risk assessments, field safety screening, sample (evidence) collection, decontamination, and other mitigation activities. Any sample (evidence) collection must be coordinated with law enforcement.
  • Notify appropriate law enforcement when a potential threat is identified. Do not touch, move, or open any suspicious package until an initial hazard risk assessment of the package can be performed in coordination with HAZMAT personnel and law enforcement.
  • Contact your local public health department (who should in turn notify state authorities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) if there is a threat of public health exposure or environmental contamination exists.
  • In coordination with law enforcement, always notify the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, whenever it appears the threat was delivered through the U.S. mail. Assist with ensuring the origin and tracking information is obtained from the package (ideally, photographs of the front and back).
  • Treat the scene as a crime scene. Preserve evidence in coordination with law enforcement and ensure materials are packaged safely. Take steps to retain enough suspicious material for laboratory analysis and forensic examination of criminal evidence, regardless of whether the threat ultimately is determined to be accompanied by a hazardous material.
  • Transfer custody of evidence to a law enforcement officer as soon as possible. Maintain chain of custody by obtaining a record of names and signatures every time custody of a suspicious material or sample for laboratory analysis changes hands.
  • In coordination with public health and law enforcement, identify and list names and contact information for anyone who may have been exposed to the suspicious substance so they may be contacted when the lab test results are available or if there is other additional information. If positive results are obtained, state and local public health departments will need to contact those potentially exposed as soon as possible to provide appropriate assistance (e.g., antibiotics, education, additional testing, vaccination, and surveillance/symptom reporting).