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Powder letters in the Netherlands and Belgium

It seems that the challenge of white powder letters is back on the table for emergency responders in Europe, writes Lina Kolesnikova.

main pic lina white
White powder letters could be a real danger when they contain dangerous substances, and they could be hoaxes – faux terrorism, which is still costly in terms of wasting emergency responders' resources and time. Image: drawlab19/123rf

In January this year, a powder letter was sent to the Public Waste Agency of Flanders (OVAM) in Mechelen (Belgium) and, according to the first indications, it contained a highly toxic chemical. The substance was strychnine – a white, odourless and highly toxic substance that is often used for mole and rat poison. Two employees were taken to hospital as a precaution.

In February, again in Belgium, an unidentified person left an envelope containing white powder at the home of the Mayor of the City of Antwerp, Bart de Wever. The fire brigade, police and civil protection services arrived immediately, and a perimeter was established. After examination, the substance turned out to be flour.

However, the Netherlands was terrorised by powder letters throughout the autumn of last year. Dutch police are investigating any connection between a series of 19 letters, which have been sent to 12 different addresses in Amsterdam and to additional locations in Amersfoort, Arnhem, Best, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Roermond and Zeist. Among the recipients of these letters were hospitals, private companies, media groups and hotels. According to the police, nobody had been hurt but the powder caused slight breathing problems and burning eyes in some of the recipients, which led the police to conclude that the powder was indeed harmful.

In 2001, letters filled with anthrax spores killed five people in the USA and created a fear of biological attacks all around the world.

White powder letters could be a real danger when they contain dangerous substances, and they could be hoaxes – faux terrorism, which is still costly in terms of wasting emergency responders' resources and time.

However, the threat is not limited to powders. Explosives, chemical or radiological materials are potential examples of hazardous materials sent via letters and parcels.

Such letters have usually been sent to the addresses of governmental agencies or big companies, including banks, but sometimes also targeted famous and/or notorious political figures, such as Dr Anthony Fauci in the USA or aforementioned Bart de Wever.

The resurgence of powder letters should lead us to assume that such incidents are still ongoing in Europe and elsewhere. Therefore, we must attract attention to improving the public's general situational awareness when it comes to suspicious mail or parcels, or when a package is found to contain a powder or any other substance.

Postal and other delivery services should consider how and to what extent their services can and should be equipped with the scanning and ‘sniffing’ systems which may detect and control the presence of harmful materials throughout delivery pipelines. It is logical that such controls should be set at the sorting sites where all mail traffic is processed.

Post office delivery centres should try to improve their registration controls of senders as a way to deter criminals and to assist with post-incident investigation support. While this might be a relatively feasible task for parcels, where post offices, agents and automated postal drop-off systems can be equipped with cameras for example, it is a much more complex and difficult task for regular post. The latter is often collected via free access distributed postal boxes – very often these are situated in unmonitored and even deserted places. Access to these boxes is open around the clock. Therefore, a better option might be to move postal boxes to places where they could be viewed or monitored by CCTV camera installations. Such a move would achieve a deterrent effect without major investment.

On the response side, special training and information campaigns should be developed for first responders and law enforcement agents who are on the front line of such incidents. A review of equipment made available to first responders for the purposes of protecting personnel and detecting hazardous material should also be considered.

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