Suspicious powders 101
SCENARIO: A suspicious
white powder is discovered in a letter and is reported to the FBI.
Did you ever wonder
... what happens next?
1. Specially trained FBI
agents, local hazardous materials (hazmat) teams, and other first responders
are dispatched to the scene. One of the onsite agents immediately
contacts FBIHQ Counterterrorism, which assembles a multi-agency
team for threat assessment/response. The HQ team helps first responders address
safety concerns, handle evidence properly, and develop an investigative plan. Click
here to see a photograph
2. The onsite team tests
the material for radiation, volatile chemicals, pH and other characteristics;
wraps it in an airtight overpack and sends it to the nearest CDC-certified
lab for more testing.
- If the field screen
is negative, the team leaves the area.
- If it's positive, 1)
the local area is shut down and tested by hazmat
teams in protective suits. Click
here to see a photograph 2)
People who had any contact with the powder are identified,
decontaminated, and possibly examined at a hospital
as a precaution.
3. If a threat
letter has been found, the CDC-certified lab makes sure it's not
contaminated, then sends it to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico,
VA, to test for clues like fingerprints, hair samples, and -- if the postage
stamp/envelope has been licked – DNA. Click
here to see a photograph The letter's
language and writing, which
could provide important clues, are analyzed by the FBI Behavioral Science
4. Once lab tests determine
definitively whether the powder is hazardous or not, the FBI works with the
CDC and state and local health departments to advise the public whether
the threat is real or a hoax.
5. The evidence
of the case is presented to the U.S. Attorney to determine whether
it should be prosecuted: If not, the case is closed. If so, a full investigation
is begun, even cases involving harmless substances, can, of course, be
prosecuted because it's a violation of federal law even to threaten the
use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction – including anthrax and other
biological agents. The threat letters and substances collected during investigations
are securely maintained as case evidence.
Just how often
does this happen? The number of reports of suspicious powders
increased dramatically after the October 2001 anthrax mailings that resulted
in five deaths. In 2002, the Bureau responded to some 2,500 reports of
the use or threatened use of anthrax or other biological agents. Full investigations
were opened in 305 of them.
What should you
should do if you come across a suspicious white powder? Read our FBI
Advisory (pdf) Download Adobe Acrobat .pdf Reader
Counterterrorism Division | FBI Lab | FBI
Behavioral Science Unit