The Tip: Too Scared?

 

It was a jumpy spring in connecticut for worriers and first responders. From one end of the state to the other, there were episodes of spilled white powder, suspicious packages, unattended suitcases, phoned-in bomb threats and even a diverted flight involving Bradley International Airport.

The white-powder incidents were especially impressive. Within a three-week period beginning in late April, the following were recorded:

  • In Avon, powder found in a teacher’s purse at Farmington Valley Diagnostic Center was determined to be baking soda. A 17-year-old student was later arrested.
  • In New London, the New London Homeless Hospitality Center was evaculated and closed for a period after white powder spilled from a manila envelope addressed to one of the overnight residents.
  • In Norwalk, officials investigated a white powder thrown from a passing car. The substance was later determined to be cornstarch.
  • In Waterbury, the Rowland Government Center was evacuated and then shut down for an additional day after an envelope was found to contain powder.
  • A Goodwill Store in Rocky Hill and elementary school in Newington were evacuated and shut down after letters containing white powder were received. (The letters were thought to be part of a batch of 400 such malicious missives sent out by an as-yet-to-be-apprehended crackpot in Texas.)
  • In Bristol, a white powder found in a letter sent to the headquarters of ESPN turned out to be drywall dust.

As an extra bonus, during the same period, there was even a suspicious package reported at Eastern Connecticut State University that kept students locked down in their dorms for several hours until it was found to contain nothing but toilet paper.

The thing is, I was only vaguely aware of most of these emergency situations, and I’m thinking the same probably goes for you, too. After all, there are literally thousands of anthrax hoaxes every year in the United States and probably just as many suitcase and package false alarms, along with mercury spills, asbestos alerts and reports of other environmental mishaps. The incidents tend to slip onto your radar and then almost immediately slip off again.

Unless, of course, the powder happens to be spilled anywhere around where you happen to be—in your school or workplace, or on your street. Then the extraordinarily heavy, time-consuming and costly governmental response makes you very aware that there might be a problem.

Typically, the area is cordoned off, with police controlling the perimeter, as local and state HAZMAT units arrive in their lunar lander suits. If you aren’t immediately evacuated, you may be quarantined for hours or even probed and tested for poison. Often the building is closed for an additional day or two while testing, which was already done on-site, is completed in a state lab.

These overproduced playlets aren’t only about suspected terrorism. Certain environmental bogeymen can set off the alarms, too. My favorite case happened in 2007, when someone at Torrington High School dropped a thermometer onto the floor of the chemistry lab. Although the resulting mercury “spill” was later described as the size of a pencil’s eraser tip, all the students, faculty and staff were herded into the cafeteria as police and other emergency personnel arrived on the scene. The clean-up, if it can be called that, took four hours to complete and cost around $25,000.

In this context, would it be imprudent for me to mention that there has not been a single genuine anthrax incident in this country in nearly 11 years? And might I also suggest that a drop of mercury (which we used to roll around in our hands as kids, by the way) could easily be corraled in 10 minutes by one person wielding a couple of simple tools and a sturdy vial?

In essence, I wonder if we aren’t losing our way on this issue. I understand that the desire these days is for everyone to be safe, or at least feel safe, no matter what the cost. I also know that the prospect of swarming lawyers and outrageous jury awards haunts every municipal decision-maker. And certainly there are incidents that ought to command the full attention of government agents, and an appropriate response. But a tiny spot of mercury? Cornstarch tossed as litter from a passing car?  A 20-gallon diesel fuel spill resulting from a traffic wreck? Shouldn’t common sense enter the equation at some point? Does the official response always have to be huge, expensive and rather fear-mongering in and of itself?

The fact that our “white-powder spring” came and went in Connecticut without raising much alarm among the general populace tells me that most of us have managed to put our fears into perspective over the years. Getting free-spending state and local governments and the $70 billion national biodefense industry to do the same will be more of a challenge.
 

The Tip: Too Scared?

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