Massachusetts letters test negative for anthrax
BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Preliminary tests of a white powder mailed in envelopes to 11 police departments north of Boston were negative for anthrax and the mailings appear to be a hoax, a top state health official said late Wednesday afternoon.
The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the matter to find out who is behind the mailings.
"Our observations of the powder indicate there is not any potential risk associated with this powder," said Ralph Timperi, the director of the state Public Health Department laboratory where the tests are being performed.
"This appears to be one of many hoaxes that have been perpetrated."
The letters were sent to 11 police departments, all in Essex County. Each was postmarked in North Reading in the county, and addressed to the various police chiefs. There was no return address.
The envelopes contained a single sheet of paper with "BLACK SEPTEMBER" typed at the top and a few grams of the unidentified powder, said Timperi.
An FBI expert also examined the letters to assess whether there is a "credible threat," Timperi said.
"We have no reason to believe that this presents any risk whatsoever and should not cause concern among the people who may have been exposed to it," Timperi added.
He said health officials had conducted "rapid" tests on three of the letters to reach their conclusion. Further tests will be conducted on all the letters in the next day to determine exactly what the substance is.
Earlier in the day, immediately after the letters were found, all police and fire departments in the state were been warned to look for suspicious envelopes and to call the state fire marshal's office if a suspect letter is found, officials said.
State officials urged the public not to panic, saying there have been more than 3,000 anthrax scares since September 11 and each one has turned out to be a hoax.
David Goggin, the assistant secretary of public safety in Massachusetts, said hazardous-material teams responded immediately when "a number of police departments received envelopes today which contained an unidentified white powder."
Bob Cannon, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said the towns that reported receiving the envelopes are adjoining, and he said some of the recipients opened them, causing some powder to spill out. Some of those who opened the envelopes apparently noticed powder on the outside.
"We're concerned. As we get closer to 9/11, we may see -- assuming that we'll get negative results -- ... some hoaxes being played," Cannon said. "We're hoping this is another one."
Cannon said he was somewhat encouraged because the powder discovered Wednesday reportedly is white, and anthrax has a light-tan or brown color.
Envelopes with white powder were sent to police departments in Danvers, Topsfield, Marblehead, Lynnfield, Salem, Saugus, Beverly, Hamilton, Middleton, Wenham and Peabody. The communities are on the north side of the Boston metropolitan area.
Asked if he was surprised about the mailing, Marblehead Police Chief James Carney said, "I am slightly surprised, but there's a lot of crazy people out there."
Capt. Stephen Garland with the Lynnfield Police Department described the envelope this way: "It came in a plain envelope, very unassuming, something you would normally open" right away.
His department did not open the envelope, because they had just received an advisory from the hazmat unit of the Boston Fire Department to be on the lookout for the letter, Garland said.
Police in Salem said they received an envelope shortly before noon. Although it was not opened, a secretary came into contact with the white powder when some leaked out.
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