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Anthrax scare changes mail habits in the Valley



Published: Fri, November 9, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Local calls to authorities about anthrax have been steadily declining, officials say.

By JOHN GOODWIN JR.

and IAN HILL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS

YOUNGSTOWN -- Rick Setty's family used to open and recycle the junk mail they received each day. Now that mail goes straight into the garbage, and once it's gone, the members of the Setty family wash their hands.

"I'm as uneasy as anybody," said Setty, director of environmental health for Mahoning County District Board of Health. "We're all a little concerned."

Setty's remarks are reflected in the daily reports made to some local law enforcement offices. Austintown police and Mahoning County Sheriff's Department each receive an average of one call per day from a local resident concerned that he may have received anthrax in the mail.

Other communities: In Boardman, meanwhile, police have received about 30 similar calls, and Poland police were called to investigate suspicious substances on about a dozen occasions during a recent two-week period. Canfield police have investigated about six calls about suspicious substances.

No cases of anthrax have been reported in Ohio in recent weeks.

Austintown Lt. Mark Durkin said officers in his department don't mind the extra work that comes with the calls to investigate suspicious substances. None of the substances they collected has posed a threat, he added.

"If they're that unsure about it, they can call us and it's not a problem," Durkin said. "Normally, we can alleviate some of the fears that they have."

However, local residents should try to determine whether the letter poses a real threat before calling police, he added.

Check first: Paul Harrington, district manager for the U.S. Postal Service in Youngstown, said that if the letter does not show signs that it may contain a suspicious substance or pose a threat, it's probably nothing to worry about.

"It all boils down to whether it's a real threat," Setty said.

Some of the characteristics of suspicious mail are detailed on a postcard recently mailed to all postal customers.

Walter Duzzny, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency, said he thinks the first local reports of suspicious substances were made after local residents were bombarded with information about responding to an anthrax threat. The dangers of anthrax have been a frequent news topic since the beginning of October.

Duzzny said that as local residents took more time to go through the information about anthrax, they learned how to deal with suspicious substances without immediately calling police.

"As they have become educated, those calls have gone down," he said.

Don't fear mail: Harrington added that despite the recent publicity surrounding anthrax in letters, local residents should not be afraid of the mail. Some things, such as samples from department stores or detergent samples, may contain powder, yet are perfectly harmless.

"There are things that legitimately come in the mail that people may be cautious of, but once they think about it, there may be a reason for the package and no reason to be afraid," Harrington said. "It is important not to be afraid of the mail. We can't guarantee without question the security of all the mail, but if people take proper precautions it will minimize any threat."

Setty said the best precaution to take with mail you don't recognize is, "Just pitch it."

"Don't open it, don't play with it," he said.

hill@vindy.comjgoodwin@vindy.com




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