Anthrax Concerns Hit Home

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Payson police and fire departments have responded to four separate situations involving reports of a suspicious white powder substance since Sept. 15.

The first two incidents occurred simultaneously at Circle K on South Beeline and Giant gasoline station on East Highway 260.

Another incident was reported from the Mazatzal Casino when a white powdery substance was discovered on one of the slot machines.

The third incident prompted a letter from the school district to Payson parents in which they were notified that a white powdery substance was found in the gymnasium at the high school. The gym was evacuated and police and fire departments were notified. The foreign substance was collected by the police department, as in the other cases, and forwarded to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

"We are just like any other community. We are getting our fair share of these type of reports," Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner said. "All of these appear to be natural occurrences that would have gone unnoticed two months ago."

The police and fire departments have joined forces to respond to these types of calls.

"We learned from the first incident," Gartner said, referring to Oct. 15 when a white powdery substance was reportedly found on a pay phone at the Giant station. Officers began to check other phones and found the same type of substance on a phone at Circle K. Protocol had not been set at that time, so it took several hours before authorities could wrap up their investigations.

That type of delay has now been eliminated.

The police department received respirators for all of its officers. If a call comes in reporting a suspicious powder, an officer responds, assesses the situation and can put on a respirator and gloves to retrieve the substance, if deemed necessary.

The powder is then triple-bagged and stored in a hazardous material shed until it is sent to the Department of Health Services laboratories in Phoenix for analysis.

The fire department takes on the responsibility of decontamination, using a 10 percent bleach solution designed to kill anthrax.

Once the substance reaches DHS, however, the delay begins again.

"The state is backed up," Gartner said. "As of Tuesday, they had 750 cases to process. They are telling us it will take a minimum of two weeks to get results."

Gartner encourages people to not overreact to every white powder substance seen.

"This could be very damaging and drain our public resources," Gartner said. "People need to keep in mind there is such a rare opportunity to contract anthrax."

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