Officials Prepared To Handle Suspicious Letters Containing Poison

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI)-- Some call the suspicious letters containing the poison ricin, “eerily similar” to the wave of letters containing anthrax that were mailed not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  But this time around, officials say they are better prepared.

The postal service says it isn’t just mail headed for congress or the White House that gets checked for dangerous substances by high tech scanners.

“Everybody’s mail goes through the same process in the postal facility,” spokesperson Valerie Welsch said, “and all letter mail goes through the detection system and is checked for suspicious substances.”

The concern among many experts in these cases is that ricin, unlike anthrax, is not difficult to obtain.

“It’s very easily available,” St. Louis University Biosecurity Department Professor Dr. Alan Zelicoff said.  “It’s from the castor bean and getting it out of the castor bean is not at all hard.  That’s actually very easy to do.”

The hard part, he says, is making it into such a fine powder that it can be inhaled.  That’s what it would take to do damage arriving in an envelope.

“Ricin in and of itself, unless it’s injected, swallowed, or breathed all the way down into the lungs, which requires the particle size be very small, is not dangerous at all,” Zelicoff said.

If envelopes did start showing up, the St. Louis Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Unit is also better prepared than it was a decade ago.  They have technology to thank for that.

“The capability of detecting ricin, we have,” Chief Denis Jenkerson said.  “It’s not that difficult.  The technology is there and we have it.”

They also have people that will act immediately to prepare for any perceived threat.  Are they training this week?

“They will be,” Jenkerson said.  “We do training every day, and the commanders on the Haz Mat team, they watch this kind of incident and they ramp it up.”

Zelicoff says, unfortunately, whoever sent the letters to congress and the White House has already accomplished one goal.

“It’s scary in the sense that it’s very disruptive,” he said.  “You’re interested, the public’s interested, the media is just full of this stuff.  It’s obviously the impact the perpetrator wanted to have.”

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