Powder substance causes hospital scare

Published: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 8:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Sun staff writer

A scare over a suspicious substance in an envelope prompted officers and employees to "lock down" a hospital in Union County on Thursday.

Lake Butler Hospital/Hand Surgery Center at 850 E. Main St. remained shut for about four hours while the powdery substance was tested, said Union County Sheriff's Capt. Garry Seay. Tests did not determine what was in the envelope but did show it was not dangerous.

"Everything checked negative," Seay said.

The envelope's discovery in the mail room, next to the hospital, prompted an emergency response from area officers and other agencies.

Several agencies from Union County, including the Sheriff's Office and fire department, were called to the building. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was on the scene and was in touch with the FBI, Seay said.

A hazardous materials team and hazardous materials medical unit from Alachua County were sent to Union County, said Megan Crandall with Alachua County Fire Rescue. The team used a device called a Travel IR or a mobile infrared spectrometer to examine the material in the envelope. The device can analyze small samples of a substance to determine its components.

A woman who was opening mail experienced burning and tightness in her nose and throat when she opened the envelope, said Jennifer Thomas, the hospital's public relations director.

That employee was treated and cleared to return to work, Seay said.

Eight employees were required to go through a decontamination tent because of possible exposure to a harmful substance, Thomas said.

No one was evacuated from the hospital, according to the Sheriff's Office. Thomas said relatives of patients at the hospital were contacted about the incident and notified that people were not being allowed in or out of the building.

In 2001, the country experienced an anthrax outbreak when letters containing the bacteria were sent to several offices, sickening some and causing five deaths. Law enforcement agencies around the country then received a rash of calls about possible dangerous substances in mail.

Seay said the county has not experienced any scares similar to Thursday's incident since the initial anthrax outbreak.

Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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