Few substances lab-tested for anthrax


Across the Baltimore region, police have been called out to examine thousands of suspicious substances since the anthrax scare began early last month. But only a tiny fraction of the samples -- fewer than 100 -- have been tested in a laboratory for anthrax.

The rest have been dumped immediately after a basic investigation, have passed field toxic-substance tests or are being held without anthrax testing in plastic bags on the shelves of police and fire department evidence rooms.

Rules for handling the suspect materials vary widely from county to county.

Howard authorities have answered nearly 400 calls for anthrax scares, but just a handful of the suspicious substances have been tested for anthrax.

However, in Anne Arundel County, where more than 600 suspicious substances have been gathered since Oct. 12, firefighters always perform a spot test for anthrax, triple-bag the item and store it in the evidence collection area of the Fire Department. The department plans to incinerate the items after 90 days, said Division Chief John Scholz of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.

One substance tested positive on the site for anthrax, but that result was quickly deemed false when three subsequent tests came up negative, Scholz said.

Scholz said a few Anne Arundel residents have been upset that not every substance was sent to Baltimore for testing in a laboratory, "but after some education about anthrax, they tend to calm down."

"We can't send everything to the lab for the sake of people's curiosity," he said. "We try to make relatively certain that when we do send something there, it's for a practical reason."

Howard County Executive James N. Robey said he supports the policy of not testing every suspicious substance.

"If we think it's something credible, we'll err on the side of caution," Robey said. "I get a briefing every day of what calls they've responded to. They're right on target, as far as I'm concerned."

In Baltimore City, residents who call police to report a substance or piece of mail talk with an officer who determines whether to contact the Fire Department and have firefighters bag the material, said Major Donald E. Healy, who developed Baltimore's policy.

Firefighters can elect to have substances examined at the Maryland Department of the Environment laboratory on Preston Street, but Healy estimated that less than 5 percent of the 750 calls have led to lab-testing.

Baltimore County's protocol for disposing of suspicious substances found to be nonhazardous is to dispose of them at the scene, said county police spokeswoman Cpl. Vickie Warehime.

She said many of the more than 600 calls about suspicious substances were weeded out through 911 screening. Police are able to test for the presence of a hazardous material when they respond to a call.

"Some have been suspicious, but none have been toxic," Warehime said, adding that none of the substances is stored at the police department.

Baltimore police do not warehouse the suspicious items, either. "We would fill our evidence rooms to the seams if we did that," Healy said.

"About 80 percent of these calls are easily explained once an officer gets there," he said.

If a substance is clearly not hazardous, officers encourage the person to throw it out.

In Howard County, reports of suspicious substances have been handled by a team consisting of a firefighter, a police officer and a health official. When the team is sent to a scene to investigate, it judges the danger level on a case-by-case basis, said county police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

The team did not test a white residue on a pumpkin, the subject of a call it responded to recently, she said.

"Things coming through the mail are more likely being taken by the FBI or by the Maryland Department of the Environment," she said.

Llewellyn said she does not think residents expect officers to test every suspicious item they gather.

"Some residents who call are simply asking officers to remove it from the property," Llewellyn said. "Citizens seem to be very happy that officers are even coming out to do that."

Substances gathered in Howard County are being stored in the property room at the Police Department and probably will be incinerated after 60 days, Llewellyn said.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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