Anthrax alarmism: Report some fears; rethink others

Anthrax is upon us—or so some Butte County residents fear, as they call upon public agencies for help in a time when people are cautious about checking their mailboxes.

Butte County law enforcement and health agencies are on alert but at the same time urging calm as the nationwide fear of bioterrorism flirts at the edges of hysteria.

Just last week, the Interagency Hazardous Materials Response Team (Hazmat) was called to ADT Hardware Systems, Inc., a downtown Chico business, after a package that turned out to be full of pulverized Styrofoam was identified as suspicious.

The company, which makes drawer slides for cabinets, received a package that had been opened and retaped and had a white powder on it, said Debbie Pryor, a receptionist there. ADT called Airborne Express, which advised them to call the police. Chico police called the Fire Department, and it called in Hazmat.

That’s the only call that’s resulted in Hazmat’s resources being used in response to local worries about bioterrorism, said Janet Marshall, spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

She said a spate of calls to 9-1-1, in which people called just to ask “what do I do if,” have died down. Marshall said false reports do tax the agencies’ resources, not just because it takes money to call Hazmat out, but also because doing so takes the team members off their regular duties covering medical emergencies and fires.

Lt. John Rucker of the Chico Police Department confirmed that there had been “maybe five or six” calls of people finding suspicious packages in the mail, and officers were sent out just like on regular calls.

“We have to take each and every call seriously, even if the threat turns out to be just that—a threat,” Rucker said.

Professor Mike Scott, who teaches communication studies at Chico State University, says there’s a name for when people starting thinking they have the latest illness.

It’s called “hysteria contagion,” and Scott said people most likely to panic in a War of the Worlds- or Tylenol/cyanide-type scare tend to be “people who have a low tolerance for uncertainty or ambiguity.”

“There’s always a certain percentage of the population that perceives it’s at risk,” he said, comparing the mentality to those who feared Y2K. He added that the Internet and the mass media fuel the flames, and the government doesn’t help, either, when leaders send mixed messages like telling everyone not to panic while at the same time clearing out Congress for fear of anthrax.

Marshall, of CDF, said local agencies were well prepared for dealing with “weapons of mass destruction” even before the attacks of Sept. 11. She also said citizens shouldn’t hesitate to call for help if they perceive a threat: “We’re going to err on the side of caution whenever there’s any doubt.”

Butte County Sheriff Scott Mackenzie agreed and said that while the county takes any threat of bioterrorism seriously, he doesn’t expect it to happen in Butte County. He added that while his department has received several fearful calls from county residents about the threat, there have been no “legitimate reasons for concern here.”

“We’re so far out of the way, I don’t think we’d be considered a major target,” Mackenzie said.

Scott said he expects the hysteria to continue for a while, until "either people will become desensitized to it as a result of that’s all they hear, [or] something else will supplant it."