Firefighters and federal agents have responded to more than 30,000 incidents involving suspicious powders, liquids or chemicals since 2001 in what authorities say is the terrifying legacy of the anthrax attacks after 9/11.
Postal service and law enforcement officials say thousands of the incidents are hoaxes involving white powder sent through the mail and thousands more are emergency calls to report powder found on countertops, in mailrooms and elsewhere.
"A single incident can warrant a huge response," says Billy Hayes of Washington, D.C.'s fire department. "It gets very expensive, not to mention the inconvenience."
There is no official count of the number of white powder calls in the seven years since letters poisoned with anthrax killed five people. But in just the past year, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service has responded to 2,893 incidents, many of which involved white powder, spokesman Douglas Bem says.
The FBI, which is called when a threatening note is found or when it otherwise appears a crime may have been committed, looked into more than 900 biological incidents from January 2007 to August 2008, "the majority of those incidents being white powder letters," spokesman Richard Kolko says.
So far this year, he says, "several dozen people" have been convicted under federal hoax and domestic terrorism laws. Among them: former nuclear engineer Michael Lee Braun, who was sentenced to more than four years in prison and ordered to pay more than $54,000 in fines and reimbursement for decontamination efforts, after sending dozens of threatening letters to government officials, journalists and businesses. Most of the letters contained white powder that he claimed was poison. It turned out to be baking soda.
"This is no joke and making these threats by mailing even harmless white powder can result in serious jail time for the offender," Kolko says.
None of the incidents since 2001 has involved anthrax or any substance nearly that dangerous.
Cities Hit with White Powder Anthrax Hoax
But just in the past few weeks, white powder incidents have caused chaos in dozens of cities, including:
In Providence, where a secretary in the state attorney general's office opened a piece of mail that contained white powder and a threatening note. The woman was taken to the hospital for decontamination, hazmat units and fire trucks responded and downtown traffic was tied up for nearly two hours, says Mike Healey, spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch.
The State Police are investigating the letter, which authorities believe came from a prisoner at the state's Adult Correctional Institutions, Healey said. "We don't take it lightly."
In Daytona Beach, Fla., where state Sen. Evelyn Lynn's office was closed for more than four hours after a worker opened a letter containing white powder.
The scare followed four similar incidents at the central Florida offices of U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, a Republican. They're under investigation.
"This is a terrible thing for people to have to go through," said Lynn.
The response cost "easily thousands and thousands of dollars," she said. "It's very unfair to people, not only the money spent but … there is trauma afterwards."
In West Jordan, Utah, near Salt Lake City, where workers at a Sportsmen's Warehouse were quarantined after being exposed to white powder while unloading a truck of goods from China.
The substance turned out to be a silicon powder used in shipping, but the response involved 25 members of the West Jordan Fire Department and an eight-person hazmat team.
"This was not only a huge cost but it took away from our (regular) service," says Assistant Chief Marc McElreath. "We were on the scene about five hours."
Authorities say they get calls that end up being everything from powdered milk spilled in an office kitchen to sand in an invitation to a beach wedding.
But a significant number of the incidents involve powder sent to terrorize someone — whether from an angry spouse, disgruntled employee or someone who feels he's been wronged in court or by a government agency.
"It's a great ploy for someone to try to bring attention to something," says Edward Moffitt of the Postal Inspection Service. But "it's very disruptive. There's a definite cost every time they respond."