Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why We Always React to White Powder Incidents

The internet is a wonderful tool; it allows me wide access to a lot of information. It also allows people to contact me with strange and peculiar questions. I had an interesting one today from someone who stumbled across my blog while researching improvised chemical munitions. It seems that the writer is trying to help a doctor identify a chemical that a postal worker was exposed to a year and a half ago.

Before I go any further, I want to warn readers that I have no way of verifying any of this information, nor do I intend to try. The story has enough verisimilitude that it serves an illistratative purpose. I have added some details to the story that was relayed to me; I did so to make some points and I don’t believe that they detract from the background information. And apparently the proper authorities have already been approached with the story, so this will not affect any official investigation that may or may not be under way.

The Story

Back in February 2011 at a postal facility in Orlando, Florida a package fell off one of the processing lines at the facility and was damaged. The package contained two bottles that were apparently wired together and at least one was damaged enough to leak. A dark noxious liquid leaked from the package. A postal worker donned a pair of gloves, cleaned up the mess, made the appropriate reports and the liquid container was placed in a Hazmat receptacle. The employee washed up and went home with a headache. The employee is now under the care of a physician who is trying to figure out what the chemical was so that he can properly treat the employee’s symptoms.

We have all seen enough news reports and have laughed often enough at the over reaction of people to know what should have happened.  The fire department and police should have been notified that there was a suspicious chemical exposure incident. The employees should have been evacuated and people in chemical suits should have been expected to go into the building to secure the suspect chemical to test it to see whether or not it was dangerous. The exposed employee should have been decontaminated at the scene and taken to the local emergency room for appropriate diagnostics and treatment.

That apparently did not happen in this instance, I suspect because too many postal employees have been made fun of by the late night comedians because they over reacted to flour or powdered sugar. There may have been a report made, but my email writer can find no organization that has any record of conducting an investigation.

Now the reason that I was contacted was that the return address on the package was apparently from Yemen. My correspondent has a military background and a suspicious nature (some law enforcement training I think) and began to think that the chemicals may have been an improvised chemical munition. I mean, why else would someone be sending bottles of chemicals from Yemen? Okay, a home remedy from mom; a special sauce for a native dish; chemical samples for some sort of applications testing (this is more common than one might think); there are all sorts of legitimate reasons. But the possibility of chemical weapons led them to me.

The Problem

Now, there are innumerable incidents where people in the shipping industry are exposed to chemicals that were improperly packed and too carelessly handled. When the chemicals are properly marked, appropriate actions can be taken to protect the workers involved. The need for decontamination and/or medical treatment can be properly assessed and responded to.

When there are no markings, one can only assume the worst and over react. Of course that gets old fast. Most chemicals are not immediately dangerous or even dangerous over the longer term from a brief exposure. So just from the random nature of things most over reactions become fodder for jokes and poking fun at people. And people begin to ignore the potential hazard until the dangerous situation arrives and smacks someone in the face; then it is too late.

To be truthful, a package from Yemen containing improperly packaged and undeclared chemicals should have raised a lot more attention that it apparently did. Of course, two years ago Yemen wasn’t in the news as much as today, but even then  there was enough talk about terrorists and Yemen, that someone should have made that potential connection very quickly. Additional precautions should have been taken, a formal investigation should have been initiated and the chemical positively identified.

But, even ignoring the possible terrorist connection here, any time someone is exposed to an unidentified chemical, there should be reason to be concerned. There are dangerous chemicals out there and people can be seriously hurt and not always in the short term. We have a person here who is still struggling to get proper medical treatment because there was not an adequate effort made to identify the chemical in question. And now it may be too late, the damage may be irreversible.

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