White powder in my morning paper

What exactly happens when you report a possible anthrax exposure? One woman found out -- the hard way.


Jessica Branson Oreskovic
October 18, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

Last Sunday, Oct. 14, in San Francisco, while waiting to go to lunch with my husband, Alexei, my sister Molly, and Babs, my mother, I open the New York Times Magazine, which is delivered along with the rest of the paper to our doorstep every Sunday morning, and about a half-teaspoon of tiny off-white granules pours onto my lap, the floor and the couch I am sitting on. All of us look at the powder, think, This is strange, then almost ignore it. Until we remember that all over the country people are getting sick from opening things with white, powdery substances inside.

We don't panic. We begin to say aloud everything that the substance could possibly be besides the dreaded anthrax. It could be sand or sugar -- but, how would either of those get in the magazine? A friend tells me that there's a powder that printers put between pages to keep them from sticking together -- it could be that, I think. But I have never seen anything like this in the New York Times Magazine before, and I have been a subscriber for a long time. A lot of weird things have been happening in the U.S. since Sept. 11, and all citizens were told to be on "high alert." So, we call the police.

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When the police arrive at our house 15 minutes later, we are all waiting outside. Partly because we're antsy and partly because we don't want to be around the white powder. The police greet us and come into the house. They look calm, which is reassuring. But, oddly, neither officer wears any protective gear, such as gloves or masks. They gather us around the magazine, which is on the coffee table and open to the page with the white powder on it. The male officer runs his pen through the substance. The female officer gawks at the stuff, and says that she thinks this whole thing is probably some kind of hoax. We ask if they know any details about the white powder that have been reported in the other cases: Is the texture like talcum powder or more like sugar? Is it bright white, or off-white? No, they say, they don't know. Like us, they only know what they've heard on the news: All cases reported a white powdery substance. That was it.

Molly asks another good question: Have they received any other calls in the area about white powder in the New York Times? Their answer comes as a shock. Yes, the female officer says. One San Francisco man had indeed called and reported a white powdery substance in his New York Times that morning, but, again, she assures us, this is probably a prank. How do you know it's a prank? we ask her. She doesn't really have an answer. We say that given the current circumstances, we want the powder tested -- to rule out that it could be anthrax. She gets on her radio and calls "haz mat," the hazardous materials crew, and the fire department. Within minutes, our block is closed off at both ends by police cars, our house is roped off by red "Hazardous Materials Do Not Cross" tape and, since I have touched the substance, I am kept away from my husband, sister, mom and dog, behind the tape along with the two police officers.

The fire team and the haz mat team seem very serious. As the haz mat crew suits up in green rubber gear, the fire chief takes the two police officers and me aside, and explains to us the different stages of anthrax. If this was the "really bad kind," he says, you would be convulsing in front of me right now. It's probably nothing, he reassures, but let's just be safe and take all the precautions.

He takes clear plastic gallon jugs of what looks like water out of the truck and has a gloved fireman pour it over our hands and forearms. The two police officers now look worried. They ask questions like, "How long will it take to know once we get swabbed?" And the fire chief tells them that they should wear gloves when they investigate calls like this in the future.

Once we're washed off, the haz mat crew begins asking questions about my New York Times. I tell them that, first off, the police told us they had received another call today from someone else reporting white powder in the New York Times. Two of the firemen look at each other, and one goes over to talk to the police officers. Then, I tell what happened. I say that when I opened the magazine an off-white granular substance came out and spilled onto the floor and couch.

"Oh my god," the battalion commander says in an alarmed voice, "it fell all over!"

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I assure them that even though some had indeed spilled, there should still be plenty left on the magazine to test. Then I describe exactly where the magazine was and where the white powder was on top of it. Two men in green rubber uniforms and masks go into my apartment. Neighbors crowd around the red tape and peer from their windows. One comes by, asks me what is happening and introduces himself, holding out his hand. I can't shake it right now, I tell him.

Meanwhile, at the behest of the fire chief, the male police officer who answered our call goes back to talk further with the man who also reported white powder in the New York Times. After the male officer leaves, the female officer tells the firemen that she hopes the man is still there; she thinks he was about to go on a business trip when the officers left his house that morning. Then, the two haz mat men in green suits come out of my apartment. One rattles a test tube in front of my face.

"Looks like sand," he says. "We couldn't find much. The stuff on the floor and the couch wasn't really enough. This was all I could get from the floor and it looks like sand."

I'm incredulous. "My husband and I just got back from Baja," I say. "Of course there's sand on the floor. But did you get the stuff off the magazine? That's where most of it was piled up."

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The haz mat man holding the test tube of sand looks at his colleague behind him with an "oh shit" look. In his hands, the man in back is holding a plastic bag with the entire New York Times -- every section including the magazine -- shoved inside. If there was enough white powder left on the magazine to test before we met these guys, surely there isn't now.

"The magazine is where the white powder was, why would you look on the floor, and why would you shove all of it into a bag?" I ask, frustrated.

They tell me to remain calm, and they go to the back of the truck. There, they open the bag, find the magazine and presumably scrape some white powder off of it. Then they all go into the truck. The chief tells me he thinks they have enough powder to test, and that they'll know in 10-15 minutes whether or not it's anthrax. At this point, I'm not sure what they're testing -- the sand, or anything that could possibly remain from the crumpled magazine. I've lost any faith that we'll learn what the suspicious substance really is.

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A man named Henry Louie shows up. He's an "emergency responder" from the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Louie talks with the haz mat crew, and then comes over to me. He tells me to remain calm, that the powder doesn't look like anthrax -- anthrax resembles baby powder, he explains, and is not grainy or sugary like the substance we found. He also says that they have tested the substance from the magazine by burning it, and that it doesn't burn like anthrax does; the powder I found burns like sugar. He tells me he'll notify the FBI just in case, but that it is probably a prank. He tells me to wash everything that the substance spilled on with water and soap or bleach, and if any of us feel "flu-like symptoms" to call our primary care physicians. Then the police, the firemen and the haz mat squad pack up and leave.

After they leave, I'm not worried. I believe them, that it didn't react like anthrax, and that I have probably not been exposed. After all, what are the chances? My family and I go to a big 50th birthday party for a friend that evening. To get in, you have to wear a name tag, and you can make up any name you want. I go as Anne Thrax.

The next day, however, I begin to worry. In telling the story to a few people it becomes clear that we still don't know what that substance was, and that no one knew -- not even the health dept or the haz mat crew. And, what was worse, it didn't seem to alarm those authorities that we didn't have any answers. That coupled with the police officers' lack of preparation makes me place a call to my doctor's office. I tell the appointment scheduler what happened and that I'd like to come in and get tested for anthrax. She says they don't have an appointment for three months, and to contact Urgent Care. I call Urgent Care. I'm told they aren't testing for anthrax and to call the emergency room to see if I can be tested there. I call the E.R. -- I can be tested there. Come in, I'm told, but prepare for a long wait.

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When I arrive at Davies Medical Center emergency room and tell the nurse why I've come, she says they don't test for anthrax. I tell her that I called and was told that they do. I then ask if she knows where I can be tested. She says no. She asks me if I inhaled it or touched it. Probably both, I say. She says she'll get a doctor, but that they have not tested anyone for it yet, and they probably can't do anything.

I go to the car to tell my husband what's happened. We discuss going to a different emergency room. Just then, the nurse comes outside with a doctor. I walk over to them, the doctor looks intelligent and caring. "Tell me what's going on," he says calmly, "I am sure we can help." I begin to cry from relief. When I catch my breath we go inside and I tell him the story. He's amazed, and says he definitely wants me to sign in so that this is all on record. He also tells me that hospitals aren't supposed to test people without some form of documentation from the health department. I give him Henry Louie's name, and tell him that Louie told me to see my own doctor, but that path had led me here. The doctor says not to worry, that he'll call the health department and my doctor and get it straightened out. He takes my temperature and blood pressure and tests my oxygenation: all normal.

He gets in touch with someone at the hospital where my doctor works. He leaves a message asking my doctor to call me the next day. He also contacts the health department and gets the go-ahead to do a nasal swab for anthrax. He tells me it's going to be unpleasant. I soon learn that the device called a nasal swab, used to test for anthrax, is nothing like what most of us would think of as a swab; it's not the Q-Tip I'd expected. The procedure is more like a nasal biopsy: A long wire is inserted all the way into the nasal passage. Once inside, a pincher on the end of the wire takes a tissue sample, then the doctor pulls the wire out. I grab onto the doctor's shirt when the wire begins to go up my nasal passage. When I leave the E.R., he tells me that no cases have yet been reported in California.

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Epilogue: Editor's Note

On Oct. 16, the author spoke with the CPMC Davies Pacific Campus Laboratory and was told that the preliminary results of her anthrax culture were negative. She'll have final results in three days. She also heard from the New York Times:

"Dear Ms. Oreskovic," an assistant news editor at the paper wrote, "I'm sorry to learn that your Sunday was disrupted. In response to queries about the magazine, RR Donnelley, the company that prints it for The New York Times, has sent the following notice to distributors:

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The RR Donnelley manufacturing process includes the use of a slip agent to reduce pages sticking together, which appears as a white residue. This powder is essentially corn starch, which is non-toxic and does not pose a hazard."

In a phone interview, Dewayne Tully, spokesman for the San Francisco Police Dept., said that the fact that the first officers to arrive on the scene were not wearing gloves or other protective gear is "routine." "That wouldn't be unusual as far as procedure," Tully stated. "On such a call officers know not to touch the substance, but they don't wear gloves as a rule -- unless someone is bleeding ... None of the incidents that we've responded to recently," Tully added, "have turned out to be a hazardous substance."

On Wednesday, the Department of Public Health's Henry Louie explained that "the burning test" is a "haz cat" (hazardous materials categorization) test that is a general screening technique, typically employed when determinations are being made about more conventional hazardous substances. "There is no field test instrument that can give immediate test results for anthrax," Louie said. Anthrax-specific tests can only be performed in laboratories.

"In this particular case," Louie said, " We used some discretion. We asked ourselves if a bioterrorist would do such a thing, if Jessica was a likely target. We felt she wasn't." The anthrax scare and subsequent spate of emergency calls his department has received have "overextended resources," Louie said. "We've had 50 to 60 calls since last Friday. Normally we have one to two per week."

Also on Wednesday, looking back on the events of the last several days, Oreskovic had this to say, "I am really relieved to find out that there may be a plausible explanation for what happened. But, because of the way the entire situation was handled, I will never really know what that substance was. My concern wasn't that I, personally, was a target of terrorists, but that my home-delivered New York Times had been tampered with, possibly used to spread anthrax on a larger scale. But the only thing I know for sure is that despite all the reassurance from politicians and the media, I believe we are totally unprepared to handle this."

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Jessica Branson Oreskovic

Jessica Branson Oreskovic. works for an Internet company in San Francisco.

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