The discovery of anthrax apparently sent through the mail in New York, Washington D.C. and other locations in the United States has created anxiety throughout the country. Emergency officials in communities nationwide have received thousands of calls from people fearing bioterrorism in a variety of forms. Local officials are urging people to be alert, but not to worry.
There have been no cases of anthrax exposure found in Chicago, but emergency officials in the city and suburbs have been busy all week responding to calls from people reporting suspicious materials. Those reports have turned out to be, among other things: baby power spilled on a subway train, powdered coffee creamer spilled at O'Hare Airport, baking powder used by graffiti removal crews in a train station, and guacamole spilled on a sidewalk.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley says people have the right to call authorities when they see something suspicious, but should use good judgement to prevent overburdening police and fire departments.
"You cannot be shutting everything down," he said. "If you do that you have a direct effect on the economy and you basically then put people in fear. What we have to do is come through this look at some things with some common sense."
Since Monday, four of Chicago's subway stations have been briefly closed after reports of suspicious powders or other materials. A few days ago, a suburban post office was shut down for a few hours when a worker found something he considered suspicious. It did not turn out to be anything dangerous.
Chicago Postal Inspector Sylvia Carrier says her office has received calls from local residents nervous about what is in their daily mail, but have found no anthrax or other dangerous materials in the local mail. "The one thing we do ask is that people not panic use common sense and look for anything they believe is suspicious," she said. "Just leave the item alone and, if possible, put on gloves and bag it and wait for someone to pick it up if they believe it is a threat."
Officials say some of the calls coming into Chicago's emergency operators are hoaxes.
Cook County prosecutor Dick Devine says people who know they are making phony anthrax reports will be punished. "Everybody should be clear: whatever legal tools we have to charge people, they will be charged," he said. "These so-called hoaxes really have an impact on lives in our community and they are going to be taken very seriously."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation says there have been more than 2,300 reports of suspicious substances nationwide since October 1. Most have turned out to be false alarms or hoaxes. Authorities say they can not afford to ignore any such report.