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Hoaxes, Statistics and Anthrax

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Message Edward McSweegan
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You're sitting in the kitchen going through the day's mail. You tear open an unfamiliar envelope and out spills a fine white powder. What do you do? Call the police? Call an ambulance? Run screaming from the house? Maybe call the terrorism hotline that Homeland Security is always flashing on highway traffic signs?

Maybe you should just clean up the spilled powder, wash your hands and finish sorting the mail. Statistically, that is the most sensible thing to do.

According to CNN, there were more than 15,000 anthrax hoaxes between September 2001 and August 2002. Previously, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies counted more than 400 anthrax hoaxes between 1998 and September 2001. In late 1998, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported seven anthrax threats; another thirty-five threats were made during February 1999. A subsequent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (July/ August 1999) suggested anthrax hoaxes were fast replacing telephoned bomb threats as the favorite sport of the disturbed, the disgruntled, and the just plain stupid.

The first widely reported mailing of an anthrax threat occurred in 1997 when the B'nai B'rith office in Washington, D.C. received a package labeled "anthrachs." It was not anthrax. Neither were the thousands of other powders mailed to various people and businesses over the years. Most of the mailed powders turned out to be flour, sugar, sand, baby powder, powdered Tylenol, grated cheese and other innocuous materials.

There has been only one event in which someone mailed spores of pathogenic Bacillus anthracis. In that case, five to seven letters were mailed to a handful of well-known individuals and offices. The opened letters released billions of wispy anthrax spores into enclosed, high-traffic work areas and produced 11 minor cases of cutaneous anthrax, 6 non-fatal cases of inhalational anthrax, and 5 cases of fatal inhalational anthrax among two postal workers and three elderly mail recipients. There have been no further mailings of real anthrax spores.

Each year the U.S. Postal Service delivers about 107 billion pieces of First Class mail to roughly 240 million adults. The odds of receiving a random piece of mail containing a white powder are vanishingly small. The odds of receiving real anthrax are essentially zero. The numbers are on your side. So why worry?

Unless you call 911 about that 'suspicious powder' in your mail. Then you'll have something to worry about. The police will show up with lights flashing. Maybe they'll bring along one of their federally funded robots. Hazmat crews in Tyvek suits will rush into your house. You'll be removed and perhaps made to strip and shower outside as so many others have before. Your house may be quarantined as crews roam around inside sampling the air and the countertops. Maybe your neighbors will be evacuated too. The local news crews will arrive and film you being taken away for a medical exam.

The FBI may show up too. They'll want you to name possible suspects responsible for the 'suspicious powder' in your mail. You may become a suspect yourself because people have been known to make false claims and accusations for 15 minutes of fame. You may become a 'person of interest:' that persistent, mysterious category of person who is neither suspect nor victim but someone to add to the federal watch lists.

Worse still, the police and the FBI, wandering through your house and poking through your possessions, may find things that suggest possible criminal or terrorist activity. That's exactly what happened to an art professor in upstate New York ("Art Becomes the Next Suspect in America's 9/11 Paranoia," The Guardian, June 11, 2004). Now he and a genetics professor in Pittsburgh are facing numerous charges and twenty years in prison ("U.S. Prosecutes Professors for Shipping Microbes," Science, July 9, 2004).

Adding insult to injury, your insurance agent may show up at some point to tell you that your policies don't cover any clean up costs, damages or inconveniences related to infectious diseases.

Last November, the American Association of Insurance Services (aais.org) filed a new virus and bacteria exclusion designed to prevent insurance company losses that may arise from claims related to infectious diseases and bioterrorism. "Coverage is excluded for loss, cost, or expense caused by, resulting from, or relating to any virus, bacterium, or other microorganism that causes or is capable of causing disease, illness, or physical distress. In addition, the exclusion explicitly applies to any loss, cost or expense arising from denial of access to property because of any...microorganisms." The exclusion is designed for commercial and farm insurance policies, but there is no reason to think it will not eventually trickle down to homeowners and small businesses.

Police. Hazmat. News crews. Street-side decontamination. People wandering through your house. Questions from the FBI, and nagging phone calls to your insurance agent. It's a lot of trouble and a huge legal and financial risk because of Sweet'N Low or talcum powder in an envelope. The hoaxers know the havoc they can create with a thirty-nine cent stamp and a cheap envelope. In the end, the best defense may be to defy the hoaxers by showing no reaction to their actions.

 

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Edward McSweegan is a microbiologist and writes a column on infectious diseases for The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Md.
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