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Over the last few days a total of 10 envelopes containing white powder have been sent to Michael R. Bloomberg and six banks in Manhattan. Following the Anthrax attacks in the USA in 2001, any envelope containing white powder causes mass disruption until the police can prove that is it not anthrax, such as in this case where the powder turned out to be corn flour.

In business continuity terms a white powder incident is something we should prepare for and staff should know what to do if they open an envelope containing it. The business continuity Manager should also look at where their mail is opened to ensure that in the event that anything suspicious is found in the post, the area can be cordoned off so that it does not cause wide scale disruption to the organisation. I was looking at some of the details of the 2001 anthrax attack and was reminded that it killed 5 people and infected 17 others and I was surprised how large the clear up bill was. According to Wikipedia “Dozens of buildings were contaminated with anthrax as a result of the mailings. The decontamination of the Brentwood postal facility took 26 months and cost $130 million, The Hamilton New Jersey postal facility remained closed until March 2005 costing $65 million to clean up and the United States Environmental Protection Agency spent $41.7 million to clean up government buildings in Washington D.C.  One FBI document said the total damage exceeded $1 billion.”

Since the anthrax attacks the police have invested in equipment which can quickly identify whether the powder is anthrax or a harmless substance like flour or talcum powder. The police will still take some time to arrive and will have to ensure they are fully protected before moving into the area of the powder and making their assessment, so there will be some delay before hopefully the powder is declared a hoax.

For business continuity people there are some lessons to be learned from this. This is an incident which has happened before and so we should be prepared for it. Many real attacks or hoaxes which make it into the media are usually followed by a whole load of copycat incidents, so do not be surprised if there are several more incidents in the foreseeable future. Staff need to be briefed what to do if they find white powder, and perhaps where mail is opened should be reviewed to make sure that any such incident does not cause major disruption to the organisation. It might also be worth asking your local police to understand their capability, response times and instructions they will give to you if you have an incident. This is yet one more incident for us to prepare for, but as it is in the news there is a high chance of further copycat incidents, and you never know they may be aimed at your organisation.

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