University probes mail system

A heightened fear of anthrax attacks around the nation and city put GW officials on high alert last week as they examined suspicious letters and responded to a call of a suspicious white powder Thursday in the Health and Wellness Center.

A student reported a white powder on the floor of the men’s locker room at about 2 p.m., said Bob Ludwig, assistant director of University Relations. Ludwig said a Metropolitan Police hazardous materials teams tested the substance at the scene and determined there was “no threat” within two hours of their visit.

While the University has no evidence of an anthrax hoax from the locker room incident, Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak said making false threats with a suspicious substance is an offense punishable by expulsion.

University Police sent seven suspicious looking letters for testing at the GW Medical Center after mail workers reported the envelopes. “Suspicious” letters could entail having no return address, an unknown sender or excessive postage or being marked “personal.”

“It was found that none contained suspicious material or threats,” Director of University Media Relations Gretchen King said.

GW enacted new mail security measures in response to recent anthrax scares on campus and nationwide. The University notified students and staff members about new protocol for handling suspicious mail by e-mail Monday.

If a student or staff member is suspicious of a mailing and unable to verify the contents with the addressee or sender, he or she should leave the parcel unopened and put it in water or a confined space like a desk drawer, according to the e-mail. Students should isolate the mailing, evacuate the area and contact UPD at 994-6111.

Chernak said UPD and the Medical Center can handle all threats within the University, but GW would notify federal authorities if a threatening substance like anthrax is detected.

“University Police and the Medical Center are being very co-operative,” Chernak said. “If there is suspicious mail, it is sent over to Ross Hall and tested in a secure lab,”

The Medical Center also tested 20 to 25 people for anthrax exposure last week, King said.

King said Student Health referred several GW students who intern at the Capitol to the Medical Center, where labs are available for testing. The students contacted GW inquiring if testing options were available at the University after waiting in line for federal testing when anthrax was sent to Sen. Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) office Oct. 15.

Freshman Reid Wilson, an intern for Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), works three floors above Senator Daschle’s office. Both offices use the same air-conditioning, Wilson said.

“After Daschle got the letter with anthrax in it, no one would touch mail with a 10-foot pole,” Wilson said.

Unaware of the testing options at GW, Wilson said he stood in line more than two hours for a nasal-swab test for anthrax exposure and antibiotics.

Wilson said he was given a six-day supply Cipro, an antibiotic that treats anthrax, as a precaution even though he tested negatively.

Concern stemming from these incidents has also led the University to implement general mail handling procedures and safety precautions with suspicious mail.

“What we would like is if a letter or package is from no sender or unknown sender, has extra postage or is marked confidential, it shouldn’t be opened,” King said.

She said students should not be afraid or embarrassed to call UPD if a package or letter appears out of the ordinary.

“We’d rather not have people opening questionable letters or packages,” King said.

Facilities Management is preparing a document to train Mail Services staff how to deal with suspicious mail and recognize anthrax-like substances, she said.

“We have been taking the full approach in all areas of the University,” King said. “We are doing our best to inform, educate and provide guidance.”

GW associate professor and bio-hazard expert Craig D’Atley said anthrax in a letter would be in a fine powder that would look like a “cross between confectioner’s and granulated sugar.”

The powder can be pure white to slightly tanned in color.

D’Atley said the most important thing a student or staff member can do if they come in contact with a suspicious powder is to put it down, lay something over it, make sure all the ventilation systems are turned off and leave the area.

Powder in a letter would most likely cause the cutaneous form of anthrax, which is treatable. The more dangerous inhalation form of anthrax is also possible to contract from a powdery substance, D’Atley said.

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