Special delivery: Powder packets no cause for alarm

Posted: Monday, October 14, 2002

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the way a lot of people look at the world.

The Kenai Peninsula may be far away from the center of those events, but the effects have been felt here.

But things aren't always as bad as they appear.

Residents may be caught off guard if they receive a packet of white powder in their mail this week. They shouldn't. The powder is Equal, a sugar substitute.

The packets are part of a nationwide fund-raising effort by the International Rett Syndrome Association. It holds its yearly "Phantom Tea" fund-raiser, where it sends out tea bags and Equal, along with a solicitation for donations. The organization wants people to take a cup of tea and toast to a cure for Rett Syndrome.

Rett Syndrome is a debilitating neurological disorder that effects mostly females at a young age. After an apparent normal development until 6 to 18 months of life, a period of regression follows during which the child loses communication skills. It often is misdiagnosed as autism or cerebral palsy.

Around 17,000 of the donation requests are expected to be sent. Some of those may reach the Kenai Peninsula.

"Seventeen thousand pieces of mail can go in any direction to any individual," Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale said.

"For myself, I would be a little skeptical," he said about receiving a little packet of powder in the mail.

Hale said the scare of anthrax has finally died down.

"All we need is another uprising," he said.

"You would think they would try to find something else to represent their goal," Hale said of the RETT Syndrome Foundation based in Clinton, Md.

The association sent out the Equal packets several years prior to the anthrax scare, said Mary Joyce Griffin, administrative officer with foundation.

The powder in the mail may get phones ringing at Alaska State Troopers. But it's a situation for which the troopers are well prepared.

They have been trained by the National Guard and the Alaska State Health Department Section of Communicable Disease Control to detect chemical and biological substances, Sgt. Barry Wilson said.

After observing the substance, they will call the Section of Communicable Disease Control and explain what they see.

In this case, troopers might see the return address belongs to the Rett Foundation, knowing the packets have been sent through the mail.

Ultimately, the health department determines if the substance should be tested.

If it does, troopers will seal it and physically take it to Anchorage. Any mail given to troopers for testing will not be returned.

Wilson did give some advise in case people open mail with a suspicious powder or crystallized substance.

"Don't sniff it," he said. "Don't put hands near the face."

People should not disturb it, he said. They need to put the substance down and step away. If people feel it might be a possible biological agent that should not be in their mail, they should call troopers.

The foundation's mailings will probably go to the bigger cities and likely not include the Kenai Peninsula, said Jan Henry, coordinator for the Kenai Peninsula Borough's Office of Emergency Management.

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